HELiOS Project: Helping Schools Go Solar

by on June 27, 2012


Monte Vista High School junior Julia Mason was the catalyst for the eventual installation of 3.3. megawatts of solar at her school district. Julia’s patience, perseverance, and good humor enabled her and her peers to convince the district that solar was the way to go. The project was revenue positive from the moment these students “threw the switch” on the system in the summer of 2011.

Photo by Tom Kelly.



The best place to cut carbon is at school, says Tom Kelly, cofounder of the nonprofit Kyoto-USA, which encourages cities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Schools are one of the few places where people regularly come together and get involved.”

In 2007 Kelly organized the HELiOS Project specifically to help schools go solar. A year later he was advising the Berkeley Unified School District on a pilot project to install solar panels at Washington Elementary.

A key part of HELiOS’s strategy is to get the installation of solar embedded into the districts’ Facilities Master Plans, which set projected capital improvements and maintenance for the coming five or ten years. A big selling point to school boards, says Kelly, is the money-saving potential of converting to solar. Since schools typically have low demand for power during the summer when electricity costs are higher, they are able to send some of that high value excess electricity back to the grid. With this valuable credit, Kelly says schools that are able to meet 75 percent of their annual energy demand with solar can zero out their electricity bills.

For Washington Elementary the value of the energy savings translates to about $25,000 a year–savings that can go toward things like books and student activities.

Following its work with Berkeley schools, HELiOS has recently completed solar master plans for the Oakland and West Contra Costa Unified School Districts, and helped students at Monte Vista High School in the San Ramon Valley USD bring solar to five schools. The group has offered to undertake similar plans for any public school district in Alameda, Contra Costa, and Solano counties at no cost to the districts.

The benefits go beyond cost and carbon reductions. “Solar on schools not only lowers greenhouse emissions and strengthens the financial situation of school districts,” Kelly says, “But there’s also an educational component to having solar around: It can be used as a catalyst to teach science, math, and physics.”

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