In the fall of 2020 I received a call from a local electrical contractor that had worked on our high school building. The company had a sustainability arm that designed and installed solar panels. They wondered if they could pitch us on a comprehensive plan to install a 660 kW ground mount solar array on two acres of our campus. The plan would steward the environment and benefit the climate. It would also benefit donors and parents by creating savings. Finally, students would benefit by learning more about solar power and its positive potential in their lives. This call was the birth of a very unique school–business partnership that was a win for the environment and everyone involved.
As a learning organization it is vital to us to have our students see us acting on our biblical convictions, and solar panels are an obvious way to do this.
As a private Christian school we are aware of the devastating effects of climate change on the world. We are also deeply committed to caring for the world we are in and making as small a footprint on the world as we can. As a learning organization it is vital to us to have our students see us acting on our biblical convictions, and solar panels are an obvious way to do this. Solar power is a key component of fighting climate change and reducing our reliance on fossil fuels. This system, the largest tier-three system you can build in Michigan, provides about 60 percent of the electrical needs of the school in a given year and is designed to power all our electrical needs on the highest demand days of the year. It takes up about two acres of our 137-acre campus, and is placed on an area of the campus that was already designated as green space. Solar panels allow the school to have a major impact on the environment, with minimal impact on the campus.
Nonprofits and government entity operations like schools, who do not pay taxes, are often stuck paying the full cost of any solar development because they cannot access these funds.
Many incentives exist for building solar panels, but they come in the form of tax credits and deductions. Nonprofits and government entity operations like schools, who do not pay taxes, are often stuck paying the full cost of any solar development because they cannot access these funds. In Michigan, this difficulty is compounded by low-rate long-term electrical contracts that schools and other non profits can access. These contracts mean South Christian had very low electrical rates, which made any solar project have such a long pay back time the investment in solar was hard to justify. We had explored building solar many times, but it never made financial sense, until we were part of creating a new model.
However, in approaching this development we created a new model for building our solar field. Our first step was finding a donor who could pay for the development—maximizing tax credits, deductions, and grants—and who wanted to give to the school for the long term. In this partnership we lease our land to a private company, created by the donor, that pays for and installs the panels. Since the company owns the panels, the company receives any tax incentives and ends up paying less than 40 percent of the cost of the project after all incentives have been paid. Since the company involved is a donor to the school, all the electrical savings come to the school over the twenty-five (guaranteed) to forty-year (expected) life of the panels. An initial investment is paid back in a few years, and the school enjoys free energy after that. Over the life of the panels it should also save the school about $60,000 a year in electrical costs. This savings came just in time because while electric rates go up on average nationally 5 percent a year, the actual rate increases are small most years with large jumps in other years. Those large jumps are occurring right now because of nuclear facilities being shut down due to aging and coal plants being shut down for pollution concerns, all while demand is rising due to the adoption of electric vehicles. The solar panels are clearly a financial win for the school, donors, and tuition-paying parents.
Finally, as a school we are always interested in the growth and learning of our students. The final part of our partnership involves the physical science class that all freshmen are required to take. One semester of this class is focused on physics, and through a grant provided by the panel installer, solar power was added as a key theme of the course. The motion unit was redesigned to use solar carts. This introduces students to the ideas and concepts of solar energy and energy transfers. This base of knowledge is used later in the course when the study of energy begins.
In our school each student is asked at some point in the semester to apply their academic work to meeting a real need in the world. We believe that a school that only teaches head knowledge is not addressing the whole person, and will not bring out the gifts of each student. As Nicholas Wolterstorff writes, “It is nothing but a pious wish and a grossly unwarranted hope that students trained to be passive and non-creative in school will suddenly, upon graduation, actively contribute to the formation of Christian culture” (Wolterstorff 31).
Jonker, Peter. “Faces Firmly Fixed.” Sermon at LaGrave Avenue CRC, March 24, 2019, www.lagrave.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/2019-03-24-AM-Faces-Firmly-Fixed-Keeping-House-Jonker.pdf.
Lawson, Danielle F. “Children Can Foster Climate Change Concerns among Their Parents.” Nature Climate Change, vol. 9, June 2019, pp. 458–62.
Wolterstorff Nicholas et al. Educating for Life: Reflections on Christian Teaching and Learning. Baker Academic 2002.
Jim Peterson is a stay-at-home dad in Grand Rapids, Michigan. His most recent full-time work was the Head of School at South Christian High School. When he has time he is a School Designer for the Center for the Advancement of Christian Education at Dordt University and an Adjunct Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin University. You can reach him to learn more about solar power, Teaching for Transformation, physics, or education at firstname.lastname@example.org.