Plugging Schools Into the Smart Grid

A school district in Silicon Valley is adding a 1.26 MW photovoltaic (PV) solar installation across several campuses to deliver about 45% of their annual electricity needs.  The ground-mounted facilities will be placed as canopies in school parking lots, so the shading provided by the panels can also reduce the air conditioning burden on the cars that would otherwise absorb all that solar radiation.  It’s a win/win situation, and a perfect teachable moment of how the Smart Grid can deliver benefits beyond the usual calculations focused on reductions in electricity and CO2 emissions.  The applications of Smart Grid technologies deliver community-wide benefits.  The ability to reduce the energy bill helps this school district invest its limited funds into education instead of operations, benefiting taxpayers and pupils. 

We can expand the integration of Smart Grid technologies even further into school districts, and into making money, not just saving money.  Smart Grid technologies enable the electrification of transportation, and can leverage the energy storage capabilities of electric vehicle (EV) batteries in smart charging scenarios.  Most schools have school bus fleets that operate on very predictable times of use with very predictable ranges.  If school buses operate on electric power, they can charge up directly from the school’s own solar facilities, and because this would be a DC (direct current) to DC charge, optimize that charge and avoid the loss of electricity experienced in a DC to AC (alternate current) conversion.  During the school year, the buses can charge using the power that is generated from school solar facilities, or charge at night when local utility rates are lowest.  The bus fleets can also drive revenues for school districts in two ways.  During the school year, the fleet batteries can be used to provide frequency regulation services for region-wide grid operations.  During the summer recess, the fleet batteries can serve as resources to discharge energy during peak demand periods for local utilities, in addition to supplying the electricity from solar panels.  That’s definitely a win for the taxpayers supporting school districts.

The benefits go even further.  We have a dire need to develop a workforce to fill positions ranging from R&D in renewable technologies, EVs, and energy storage to installation and maintenance of solar facilities, vehicle charging hardware and software, and energy management solutions.  School districts can be living laboratories for students – familiarizing them with the state of the art technologies and readying them to pursue careers in distributed generation, renewables, software, hardware, regulatory policy, and economics.  The educational possibilities extend into awareness of energy use to create engaging social media-based applications that enable energy efficient behaviors, as well as creating technologies that minimize their use of electricity.    

What is required to make this dream scenario a reality?  Enlightened regulatory, legislative, and voter actions at the local and state levels would encourage the rapid proliferation of relevant renewable technologies and EV bus fleets in school districts, stimulating local job growth and setting up the next generation of workers in skilled trades and high-tech sectors.  Changing regulatory policies to allow school districts to participate as electricity providers is required.  The school district that is going solar got its start with a voter-approved bond measure.   It’s one step in the right direction.