Blog

Getting Schooled on Solar

By Emma Pabst
Environment Texas Associate

When I found out that my first campaign would be to put solar on every school I was pumped.

I love schools. I went to schools. I made my best friends at schools. I learned so many things at schools. Heck, until a year ago, I thought I wanted to keep going to school forever.

Folks joke that Ted Cruz was such a nerd that he’d sing Les Mis on the way to debate team camp, but, legit, that was me. Cards on the table; I loved school, I loved the debate team, and I loved Vampire Weekend.

So when I got my campaign assignment I jumped right in. The story was simple. Solar on schools makes perfect sense; it saves on so many things: electric bills, air quality, the planet, you name it. Schools prepare tomorrow’s leaders to take on the problems of the future, and you probably know as well as I do that climate change is, well… a biggie.

If we hope to avert the worst impacts of global warming, we need to hit the brakes on fossil fuels and build a renewable world. And who better to build that world than a generation of students fueled by renewable energy? Solar schools give students an opportunity to explore the ever-expanding fields of science and technology, equiping them with the tools they’ll need to keep our clean energy revolution going. Also, in a city like Austin, where even our winters are hot, solar just makes sense. It’ll take the edge off our summer AC bills and use all that sun to protect our planet.

And even better than that, the money was already there! Back in 2013 Austin voters approved a bond that included $10 million to put solar panels on schools in Austin Independent School District. Since then, the district had only spent a fraction of the funds. My job? To get them to move forward, and make plans to put solar on every school in the district by 2025.

It seemed too easy. The money was there, the voters had spoken, and in combination with Austin Energy’s solar incentive programs, the district could save hundreds of thousands of dollars every year. Why would the district just leave bond money sitting around? So, as any devoted public advocate does, I launched a full scale investigation.

I riffled through old email chains, websites, and committee archives from AISD, the City of Austin, and Austin Energy. I contacted countless district officials and requested up-to-date information on AISD’s solar projects. I even quizzed my mom (an elementary school librarian) for insider information.

And this is what I found. Buckle your seatbelts folks. We’re about to enter the bureaucratic backroads of Texas public education.

Part 1: The Proposition

In 2013, Austin voters narrowly approved Prop 1: a bond that included $20 million for energy conservation and efficiency in AISD (1). Austin ISD pledged to spend $10 million of those funds on solar energy projects. (2)

Part 2: The Process

Over the course of the next four years, the district spent $3.8 million installing solar panels on 8 schools: Metz Elementary, Lanier High, Austin High, the Uphaus Early Childhood Center, Boone Elementary, Galindo Elementary, Kocurek Elementary, and Paredes Middle School (3).

These installations were awesome; the largest AISD has seen yet! One by one, our school-tops became shining reminders that our city, our school district, stands for what’s important. With solar on 45 of their 130 schools, AISD was well on the way to becoming the first school district in Texas, maybe even the first in America, to have solar on every school.

But in 2017, construction stopped. Since June of 2017 the district has not released any documents that indicate the planning or construction of solar projects at AISD schools. Solar, something that once seemed a top priority for AISD, suddenly seems to have fallen off the map.

Part 3: Moving Forward

I’ve reached the end of my internet sleuthing operation (for now) and I’m left with a single question: What happened to the rest of the $10 million?

Hopefully after I’ve flooded every district official’s inbox and voicemail with the determined inquires of an aspiring Leslie Knope, someone will let me know.  

I still love school, but like all things, I’m learning to love it differently. I might not get to spend all day working on class projects with my besties anymore, but I do get the pleasure of speaking with folks who are truly committed to educating our young people.

Sorting through the archives of committee meeting documents isn’t optimal, but hey, if my fifth grade teacher found time to help excavate my crumpled homework from the bottom of my backpack, then I can find time to politely interrogate every district official who will speak with me. Public school spent sixteen years dealing with me. Now it’s my turn to deal with them.

….And in case you were wondering, the answer is yes; if I can find the single sentence I’m looking for in the minute archives of an AISD committee meeting in 2015, you bet I can find your middle school Facebook profile.

(1) https://www.traviscountyclerk.org/eclerk/content/images/sample_ballots/2...

(2) Meeting minutes from the Environmental Stewardship Advisory Committee Meeting Minutes indicate that "ESAC members asked questions about 2013 bond funding for energy efficiency ($10 million) and solar energy ($10 million) projects. Four schools are currently identified to receive rooftop solar installations as part of the 2013 bond funding: Austin High School, Lanier High School, Metz Elementary School, and Uphaus Early Childhood Center.

(3) In 2016 AISD begun phase 1 of solar installations, including installations at Metz Elementary School, Lanier High School, Austin High School, and the Uphaus Early Childhood Center. Meeting minutes from AISD's Community Bond Oversight Committee Minutes indicate on page 3 that phase 1 installations were estimated to cost $1 million; According to this 2018 Request for Council Action from the City of Austin (page 3), AISD spent $1,737,335 on the initial installation of phase 2 solar panels, and will receive approximately $100,929 per year in incentive rebates for 10 years.