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Mississippi schools look to solar power to cut costs

A recent change to Mississippi’s power generation laws, set to take effect in January, will allow over half of the state’s public school districts to start saving money by generating their own solar energy. 

The new rule, which the Public Service Commission agreed to with the state’s two investor-owned utilities in October, paves the way for school districts to earn credits for generating solar power without actually having to pay for the solar panels. 

Starting in 2023, any of the 95 public school districts served by Entergy Mississippi or Mississippi Power can enter into what’s called a power purchase agreement, where a third-party contractor foots the bill to add solar panels to the school district’s property. Entergy or Mississippi Power would then buy the generated solar power and credit the district on its energy bill. For funding the new system, the contractor would be eligible for government tax credits. 

While the rule change opens a door for widespread renewable energy use in Mississippi, a few of the state’s school districts are already generating solar power, with some seeing new wiggle room in their budgets. 

“It’s been a very, very big win for the district,” said Mike Papas, director of Auxiliary Services at the Forrest County School District. 

Solar panels on the roof of the performing arts center at North Forrest High School. Credit: Mike Papas / Forrest County School District

Last year, Forrest County School District finished installing 300 solar panels on the roof of its performing arts center, which it uses for events like school plays and faculty meetings. The building, Papas said, seats 900 people and needs constant air conditioning. But because the solar panels create $3,000 a month worth of electricity, he said, they cover more than half of the center’s electric bill.

“For us to be able to produce clean energy, then for us to take that money and put it back into the budget to do what’s needed for the students, we couldn’t lose,” Papas said. “And plus it was free.”

In 2014, the Sierra Club reached a settlement with Mississippi Power over the utility’s now-infamous failed clean coal project in Kemper County. The two sides agreed to direct $15 million towards solar projects for schools as well as energy efficiency upgrades for low-income homes.

“(The Kemper project) was pretty bad for a lot of folks, but something good came out of it,” said Rodger Wilder, president of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Community Foundation.

So far, that money has paid for solar panels at a dozen school districts, including all the panels at Forrest County School District. Interested school districts in the Mississippi Power service area can still receive funding from the Coast foundation, which was put in charge of administering the $15 million. Districts receive grants of around $250,000 to pay for solar panels as well as to introduce renewable energy into their curriculum. 

Central District Public Service Commissioner Brent Bailey said using money from the Kemper settlement to fund solar panel systems has helped demonstrate their effectiveness to people who might otherwise be skeptical. 

“If anything, it certainly helped educate school administrators, school finance officers, facility managers and others on what these systems really do,” Bailey said. “I think (the Kemper settlement) served a great deal to help identify and refute any myths.”

Brooks McKay, director of operations at the Ocean Springs School District, said he and others were skeptical of how solar panels would be able to withstand hurricanes.

“There's a little bit of hesitation on the Coast to put something on the roof worth $250,000 that you don't know is gonna blow off or not,” he said. 

But McKay said the panels have held up fine since the district put them on top of its central office building two years ago, and now the district is already looking to take advantage of the PSC’s rule change to add more solar panels in the near future. 

Solar panels on the central office building of the Ocean Springs School District. Credit: Ocean Springs School District

“What we don’t spend on energy we can spend on (other things),” said McKay, who estimated that the district saves about $300 a month on its electric bill during the summer.  “It could be teacher units, classroom supplies, buses is one area we really put some savings in.”

Other districts around the state could soon be lining up as well: During the PSC’s public comment period on updating the net metering rule, superintendents from the following districts wrote in support of expanding renewable energy opportunities to schools: Attala County, Enterprise, Greenville, Kemper County, Lauderdale County, Okolona, Union, Winona-Montgomery, Yazoo County and Newton County.

School districts in the Mississippi Power service area interested in grant opportunities to fund solar panel installations can reach out to GCCF. A list of districts in the Mississippi Power and Entergy Mississippi service areas is available here.

The post Mississippi schools look to solar power to cut costs appeared first on Mississippi Today.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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