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IPS Partners with Indiana Firm to Plan Largest K-12 Solar Project Ever in Indiana

Already a national leader in energy conservation, Indianapolis Public Schools (IPS) is moving forward with planning for a solar energy project that would significantly reduce costs, cut carbon emissions and boost sustainability efforts in the state’s largest city.

The IPS Board of School Commissioners approved an agreement with Carmel-based Sun FundED to develop, finance and operate solar energy systems for the district under the firm’s “Solar-as-a-Service” program. The project would reduce energy costs by an estimated $45 million over the next 30 years.

“Research has consistently shown that solar projects can reduce air pollution and CO2 emissions, and significantly reduce energy costs,” said Dr. Aleesia Johnson, IPS superintendent. “Under this new partnership, IPS will install solar panels at multiple schools and locations across the district, enabling our schools to utilize clean energy while at the same time reducing the district’s carbon footprint.”

If approved and installed as planned, the project would represent the largest solar energy project by an educational institution in Indiana history. The project proposes both roof and land based solar installations at 20 schools, and also includes the ability for the district to adopt renewable energy and sustainability programs for the classroom through SAMI, a digital platform intended to help students understand the financial and technical aspects of solar energy.

Project locations, size and system output will be finalized through the development phase of the project.

The move to clean energy is part of the district’s continuing effort to be both a good steward of taxpayer dollars by reducing energy costs and a good steward of the environment by promoting renewable energy use in the Indianapolis community.

The partnership with Sun FundED will build on previous efforts and recognition for the district’s energy-savings plan. In 2020, IPS was recognized as one of three K-12 districts recognized nationally as U.S. Department of Energy Goal Achievers for cutting energy use by 26% across 80 facilities. The district was recently recognized for its Energy Star certified buildings upgraded in 2020. Another 20 facilities are expected to be certified as a result of energy upgrades in 2021.

Weston Young, the district’s chief financial officer, said the project will cut costs in the first year with no debt incurred, incorporate a sustainable approach to power as part of the district’s Rebuilding Stronger initiative, and more robustly prepare students for green energy/STEM careers. 

“‘Solar-as-a-service’ represents a fixed-fee structure that stabilizes and makes budgeting more predictable for schools while creating a long-term hedge against cost-plus inflation,” he said.

Based on the initial 20 buildings, it’s estimated that first-year savings for IPS would be more than $120,000. Those savings are estimated to increase to $22 million by year 25, and $40 million by year 30.

The transition from fossil fuels to solar energy is a natural path for the district, said Evan Hawkins, president of the IPS Board of School Commissioners.

“This is a phenomenal initiative in an urban environment on a scale that hasn’t been done before,” said Hawkins. “As a Board, we are excited that IPS is moving forward with a solar energy project that will be transformative in the coming years. Without a doubt, people around Indiana will be pointing to our efforts in the coming years when talking about the positive changes we are making in education and sustainability.”

Kelly Hipskind, the co-founder of Sun FundED, told the board that the cost of solar has fallen 99% since 1977, making solar energy cheaper than fossil fuels.

“The Indianapolis Public Schools leadership team and Board have been amazing partners to work with,” said Hipskind. “We were blown away from the beginning about how committed IPS was to renewable energy and improving their district for all students, faculty, staff and the Indianapolis community at large. 

“As the son of a retired teacher and soon to be retired dean of students in public education in Indiana, it brings great personal and professional pride for Sun FundED to steward this investment into 20 buildings and see the positive returns to IPS compound over the coming decades, and watch the ROI compound for generations to come at IPS and throughout Indiana.”