Alachua County Public Schools’ Innovative Solar Leasing Program: Increasing Renewables, Saving Money, and Creating Jobs

Better Buildings Challenge K-12 Schools partner Alachua County Public Schools (ACPS), located in northern Florida, has launched one of the country’s most innovative solar leasing programs. The feed-in tariff (FIT) program is a public-private partnership which allows private investors to lease space on district building roofs, on which they install solar photo-voltaic (PV) arrays. These arrays in turn generate electricity, which is sold to the local utility, Gainesville Regional Utilities.

The program increases the district’s consumption of renewable energy while it also generates much-needed school funds used to create jobs for the local community.

The FIT program is providing ACPS with $123,000 annually over 20 years, for a total of $2.46 million. The district plans to use this revenue to implement energy-related improvements at area schools and expand a district-wide K-12 renewable energy education program. The program benefited the greater community, as the project produced $1 million in contracting jobs along with creating a local source of renewable energy.

The FIT program is part of a trend of ACPS’ history of leadership in energy and sustainability. The district has received a number of awards, including the U.S. Department of Education’s Green Ribbon Schools 2015-2016 District Sustainability Award and the Florida Green Schools District 2014/2015 Gold District, among others. Since joining the Better Buildings Challenge in 2010, ACPS has achieved an 11 percent reduction in energy intensity in over 4 million square feet of floor space, more than halfway toward their goal of a 20 percent reduction by 2023.

The source of these achievements lies in the district’s many sustainability initiatives, including recycling, water and energy conservation, and Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) programs. ACPS’ efforts not only illustrate their dedication to sustainability, but also their holistic approach of capturing public health co-benefits, through initiatives such as the 2012 Green Schools Resolution indoor environmental quality improvement program and Farm-to-School Programs, aimed at promoting sustainability and the health and well-being of staff and students.

Similarly, the district is extending the benefits of the FIT program to its students by creating engaging STEM and renewable energy learning experiences. The district has used the revenue from the program to implement the North Florida EnergyWhiz Expo, an event where elementary through high school students compete to design solar-powered gadgets. Events include the “Junior Solar Sprint,” where students design and race solar-powered cars, and the “Solar Cook-Off,” featuring student-made pizza box solar ovens, designed based on the concepts of radiation, convection, and conduction. In another event, the “Critter Comfort Cottage,” students aim to build housing for a pet based on energy efficiency and building design concepts. The event affords students a hands-on opportunity to explore and apply scientific concepts and employ the very same technologies being installed on their school rooftops.

Due to program success, the City of Gainesville suspended the FIT program in 2014 but interest in solar power is expected to continue as energy costs rise and solar costs decline.