Reach for the sun: More DC schools go solar in ‘unheard of’ deal

WASHINGTON At Academy of Hope, teachers are introducing a new subject, and textbooks are not needed. To study the specifics of solar energy, students at the adult public charter school just need to look up.  

Academy of Hope is one of several schools in the District to opt for alternative energy. Along with six other charter schools in the city, it recently signed a contract to install solar panels on its rooftop.

Krystal Ramseur, director of finance and operations at Academy of Hope, said the decision to go solar has been a long time coming. A few years ago, the school, which operates a campus in Northeast D.C. and another in Southeast, drafted a sustainability plan. This included switching the building’s incandescent lights to LED and launching a schoolwide recycling program. Going solar was the next obvious step.

The solar program at Academy of Hope will lower the cost of the school’s energy bills, which can peak around $5,000 a month during summer and winter, Ramseur said. When the solar panels are installed, she anticipates saving between $1,500 to $3,000 a month.

These savings come at no cost to Academy of Hope and the other schools that entered the contract, which was negotiated by Community Purchasing Alliance. The panels will be installed for free and the schools will receive the electricity generated by the panels free of charge. Additionally, the participating schools will collect annual payments of $5,000 for 10 years from the installer, New Columbia Solar, as part of its shares from solar renewable energy credits.

If the deal sounds too good to be true, Community Purchasing Alliance Executive Director Felipe Witchger says that’s the power of purchasing in a group. Organizations such as DC SUN have been mobilizing local residents and organizing bulk solar purchases in neighborhoods throughout the city for years. Lately, more nonprofits, faith institutions and schools have followed suit.

Witchger explains that when customers purchase energy “in bulk,” they can negotiate the best value from companies, similar to buying groceries or other supplies in bulk.

“Purchasing co-ops have been effective at so many levels,” he said, citing examples such as Land O’Lakes and Ace Hardware. “[Co-ops] are actually setting the market price now, versus just taking what the market has to offer. That’s the group power we push suppliers on all kinds of things.”

KIPP DC, which operates a network of 16 public charter schools in the District, also entered into the solar contract brokered by Community Purchasing Alliance. KIPP’s director of business operations, Nate Schwartz, said KIPP is continuing to grow and so are its energy bills.

“So we’re always looking for ways to reduce our footprint, and solar is certainly one of them,” Schwartz said.

KIPP launched a solar initiative at one of its campuses last spring, but Schwartz says he’s never heard of a deal that provides free installment, free electricity from the panels and a $5,000 annual stipend.

“There’s a lot to be gained by everyone by working together and purchasing in bulk and using our combined purchasing power in order to save money and also just share best practices,” he said, adding that the money saved on energy bills will go directly back to the classrooms.

KIPP is even planning to integrate lessons on solar energy in its math and science curricula.

“We’re able to be the good environmental stewards that we want to be and be sustainable that we plan to run for years to come, and we’re also able to invest in the classrooms,” Schwartz said.

At Academy of Hope, which also plans to include solar energy in its curricula, Ramseur said the lessons that come from the solar project are just as beneficial as the savings.

“Most of the other schools involved focus on K-12, but we see this as an opportunity to really reach our entire community because we’re getting our adult learners involved,” Ramseur said.

“They’re taking this back to their families, their neighborhood, and you just see more growth that way. It shows our learners other ways they can be sustainable in their lives.”

Editor’s Note: A previous version of the story said KIPP DC operates a network of six schools. This has been corrected to 16. 


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