How Solar Energy Saved a School–and Could Save a Lot More

Iowa school district superintendent Darrell Smith took a cue from local hog and turkey farmers and cut operating costs by installing solar. Photo credits: WACO CSD, WACO CSD
Reading Time: 4 minutes

In a bid to save his little institution from economic ruin, Darrell Smith, the superintendent of the WACO Community School in the village of Crawfordsville, Iowa, found inspiration in a surprising source: hog farmers.

With classrooms across Iowa suffering from budget cuts, Smith needed to get creative to save money. After seeing how hog and turkey farmers cut costs on local farms by using solar energy, he decided to try the same model in his school. And lo and behold, it worked. Big time.

Energy Costs Cut by 90 Percent

Solar panels have cut electric costs by 90 percent since January 2015, allowing the school to stay open.

This raises untold possibilities for all manner of enterprise, and is therefore potentially significant.

Specifically, this offers educational institutions a model for how renewable energy can help them save money — while educating students on how alternative energy sources work.

“We’re a small school, we have 500 students K-12,” Superintendent Smith told WhoWhatWhy. “We mostly rely on enrollment fees to support the school, but we had declining enrollment and our expenses don’t go down.” Negotiated contracts with the teacher’s unions meant that it was impossible to cut staff costs. And school officials certainly didn’t want to fire any of their teachers.

“So we looked at the farmers as an example. They use solar energy as a[n] energy source, and solar energy allowed us to cut our spending.”


Just how did solar panels keep the school district from economic ruin?

In Iowa, schools receive a separate allotment of the state’s six percent sales tax—but the allotment can only be used for infrastructure. Infrastructure includes long-term investments for buildings, athletic facilities, computer systems, and the like but does not include day-to-day operation costs that keep the school open, such as paying teachers … or the electric bill.

In this case, WACO invested $1.2 million in solar panels, and is using its allotment from the sales tax to effectively pay back that investment in infrastructure. The solar panels produce power for free, which defrays those electricity costs that previously were paid for out of their general operating budget.

A bird’s eye view of the school-saving solar panels. Photo credit: WACO CSD

A bird’s eye view of the school-saving solar panels. Photo credit: WACO CSD

How effective has the solar initiative actually been? On a sunny day in May, Smith says, the school was able to produce over 110% of its electrical needs. And because they have an agreement with the electric company that allows them to use leftover solar energy to offset the energy provided by the company, the school can still reap the benefits of the solar energy scheme on a rainy day.

The Larger Problem

Schools everywhere have no choice but to get creative.

In Iowa, one funding source after another has dried up over the years, prompting a wave of school closings and district reshuffling. Between 1965 and 2013, 117 school district reorganizations have taken place, according to the Sioux City Journal. According to the Des Moines Register, in 2014 alone, 29 Iowa schools were shuttered, and 65 districts received notices that they were in danger of deficit spending, And last year’s first school session began with even more children crammed into even fewer schools.

“You don’t have to travel very far in Iowa to find towns that have been decimated — that you can trace back to right about the time the school shut down,” Tim Gilson, an assistant professor of education at the University of Northern Iowa who studies the effects of school consolidations in Iowa, told the Sioux City Journal.

To residents with long memories, this budgetary pinch may seem un-Iowan. In the early years of the 20th century, Iowa was in the vanguard of “the high school movement,” offering secondary schooling to qualified students throughout the state. With the third highest high school graduation rate in the country, Iowa proudly highlighted education on its commemorative quarter in 2004, the only state to do so.

3Iowa is the only state to highlight education on its commemorative quarter.


The WACO Model?

Now, those eager to return to better days are approaching Smith for advice. Though with each district comes different funding sources, so it would not be easy to replicate what he did. And despite the savings, the WACO school can just balance its budget and maintain existing programs.

Nonetheless, the gambit worked–and it has been an educational experience for all—literally. Teachers and students get to see exactly how much solar energy is needed to make a computer work. An elementary level class monitors how much energy the school is producing — and how much fossil fuel they are not burning. This, Smith notes, allows young people to grasp the impact they are having on the environment.

“In education, we have to get creative sometimes,” shrugs the quintessentially understated Iowan, who has  given “Pork Barrel” politics a whole new meaning.


Related front page panorama photo credits: Iowa map (Wikimedia), solar panels (Oak Ridge National Laboratory /

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12 responses to “How Solar Energy Saved a School–and Could Save a Lot More”

  1. Title

    […]one of our visitors recently encouraged the following website[…]

  2. Conrad says:

    Solar panels these days are as cheap as $1 a Watt. Ten kW can save you a lot of money. It’;s not rocket science. You’re getting free power. By the way, I’ve had my panels for almost 25 years and they’re still putting out like new. Open up the coffers for Solar.

  3. From Our Facebook Page says:

    (Comment by reader George Fraser) Pittsburgh schools should look at geothermal heating as well.

    Seton-Lasalle has a great big hill behind it. The deeper they go into the hill the warmer it gets. They could heat the school for free.

  4. From Our Facebook Page says:

    (Comment by reader Louis Forkas) I just posted yesterday how Nevada’s utility companies are trying to make solar owners pay more for electricity than people who don’t own solar panels! I have solar panels, and if these GOP-run states really are of the party’s beliefs about freedom and free markets then how come they are hell-bent on controlling them! The three people that sit on the commission to approve or disapprove are his appointees!! Guess which way they’re likely to vote! This is all too common since Bush appointed his appointees to the Supreme Court, and they began screwing the people and we just sit back and take it!!

  5. From Our Facebook Page says:

    (Comment by reader Coy Hargrave) Some people: “Wait, no dammit, we need to support oil and gas. Every child needs to thoughtlessly increase their energy use and follow their grandparents generation model of running head-long into a world of poisoned waters and mass famine! Or even better, a planet that can no longer support any life bigger than a cockroach! That’s the red, white and blue American way!”

  6. KenC says:

    Are they actually saving money? It appears they just shifted money from one budget to another – but the taxpayer pays either way.

    Other sources say they hope to save $90,000/year. If they achieve that, the payback on the $1.2 Million is over 13 years, not counting the interest on the bond – that cost could push payback out beyond the useful life of the system.

    Is this *really* a model for other schools, or a shell game played on the taxpayer?

    • K227743 says:

      I don’t view this as a piece about saving taxpayer money. It’s about a school
      finding a creative/clever way to free up money that they couldn’t otherwise receive because of specific state rules, and it saved the school from “economic
      ruin.” So, it is kind of a game (isn’t bureaucracy always a game?),
      but I don’t think it’s being “played on the taxpayer.” Everyone seems to
      win here—if the taxpayer is going to pay “either way” then why not get
      solar energy out of it and save the school? That said, the primary
      “model” this offers to other schools is the idea that you can get very
      creative with your budget.

    • KenC says:

      Thanks for your reasoned reply. Yes, but the article does say ” this offers educational institutions a model for how renewable energy can help them save money”. I guess if it said ‘this offers educational institutions a model for how to shift money from one taxpayer funded account to another taxpayer funded account’, I would not be asking.

      For it to be a ‘win-win’ economically (I agree there are likely environmental pluses), they should present the numbers. I read there was a bond involved – how much are they paying? I’m just asking for transparency. Maybe it works out economically, but I’d like to see the numbers.

    • Steve Kelem says:

      They made a capital expenditure: bought solar panels. The solar panels eliminated the on-going expense of paying for electricity, allowing the money already allocated for on-going expenses to contribute to salaries. It worked in this school because the school district invested in long-term items like solar and school buildings. It can’t work in the districts where the administrators reorganize and shift to new buildings every year.

    • KenC says:

      Yes, but we have no info on the eventual payback. In what year does the taxpayer see any overall savings? I’d like to see those numbers.

    • KEN:// Since you love fossil fuels so much and feel that solar is a waste, why don’t you go live and wok for the government of Turkey. You’ll fit right in. As for America, if they spent half as much per year as they spend on military bullsh*t and took that money and put it into wind and sun power research, we’d be off of fossil fuel and nuclear dependency in a decade. That’s a fact the ‘oil boys’ don’t want you or the world to know. So they’ll just keep killing thousands of people and killing the earth until someone with ‘balls of steel’ takes over and puts a stop to the worst crime in the history of mankind! Darrell Smith, you should be awarded for your superior intelligence Good thinking!!!

    • KenC says:

      Why so angry?

      On the first point, you are absolutely wrong – I don’t ‘love’ fossil fuels. I’d like to see us move away from them, but we have to be honest about the costs and other factors (like storage or more peaker plants to carry us through periods of low sun/wind).

      As to the rest of your angry rant, it had nothing to do with my question, so I’ll move on.