A solar park born out of a partnership between Oklahoma Electric Cooperative and a local school district is generating money for public schools
A local school district is soaking up the sun and seeing the benefits of large-scale solar energy firsthand.
Norman Public Schools (NPS) approved a deal in 2019 to lease 15 acres of unused land to Oklahoma Electric Cooperative (OEC) for a utility-scale solar farm. The 2-megawatt Solar Park and Learning Center went live in late 2020 and has received positive engagement from the community.
“We have a bit of a history here at Norman Public Schools in the area of energy conservation with our technology upgrades. We’ve been moving to LED lights and just overall energy awareness programs for our district,” says Justin Milner, NPS chief operating officer. “We discovered that OEC had some interest in adding to their solar garden, so it was a perfect fit.”
The goal, along with clean energy production, is for the site to feature educational components and attract educators and students statewide to learn about solar energy and renewable energy technology.
“Right now people can come visit, see and learn about a live, functioning power plant. We’re really looking at getting some more visual learning materials out there covering not only renewable energy but electricity, the US electric grid and careers,” says Nick Shumaker, OEC’s manager of system engineering. “We’ve already been talking to the University of Oklahoma. We’ve been talking to Norman Technology Center. I think there’s a lot of people that are very excited to put their stamp on a section of it.”
Future plans for the site include installing a science learning center to increase education and community engagement, Milner says.
“We’ve had meetings to kind of launch that conversation around a science education center—an outdoor classroom, if you will. We have a few educators taking a look at that. I know OEC has a small grant to sit with an architect and draw that up, and we’re looking at some sponsorship opportunities as to how we can fund it and build it,” he says. “(We envision) for this to truly be a destination for other school districts to come out and bring their students out to see this, and to truly have a fully-developed classroom out there.”
The solar park consists of 7,208 solar panels that produce enough energy to power roughly 350 homes for an entire year or the district’s two high schools, Shumaker says. However, due to energy regulations in Oklahoma, NPS doesn’t directly receive any of the energy produced by the solar park. The school district has no financial risk, though, and does generate revenue while receiving renewable energy credits, which can be worth hundreds of dollars.
“Norman Public Schools has two current streams of revenue: they’re subleasing land to us for 30 years, so guaranteed revenue from that; and then the value of the renewable assets,” Shumaker says. “We’re also working on some ways for the community to get philanthropically involved. To be able to sponsor some of the solar panels, and then send the energy from that solar panel to the school district to help lower their utilities.”
Building maintenance and energy costs represented nearly 80% of NPS’s annual budget, and while they don’t receive any of the solar energy, the project helps cut costs and accrue savings dollars for the district.
“Funding in Oklahoma for public schools has been a challenge with our legislature, so it’s important for us to be very conscious and try to save where we can,” Milner says. “This seems to be a great way to do so and to reinvest those dollars back into the classroom.”
The solar park and renewable energy credits will also help the City of Norman reach their renewable energy goals. In 2018, the Norman City Council passed a resolution pledging to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2035. Norman is the first city in the state to make this type of commitment, and NPS has already implemented changes to make that possible.
“Norman is very conscious of renewable energy. Our city has a commitment to be 100 percent by 2035, and we’ve stepped up with OEC. Hopefully we’ll see more partners out there working to achieve that,” Milner says. “We’ve financially seen, I think, over $3 million now in savings due to some of the technologies that we’ve put in place and the energy programming for our employees. That $3 million saved goes back into the classrooms.”
Interest in renewable energy, solar in particular, appears to be growing across Oklahoma. OEC’s first solar array was built in 2017 next to the heavily trafficked Interstate 35. Because of its high visibility next to the highway, Shumaker said they received many inquiries from educators.
“We hadn’t really anticipated that, but people started asking, ‘I really want to learn about that. Can I come see it?’ And being a very community-minded organization, we started bringing people out and developing a tour of sorts,” he says.
For NPS, being able to utilize unused land while providing space for solar energy and creating education opportunities for Oklahomans across the state has been a net positive.
“We appreciate OEC and folks who are willing to partner in ventures like this. It’s a little nontraditional for school districts, but with creative, open minds, it’s amazing what can come out of partnerships like ours with OEC,” Milner says. “This is a great example.”