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Solar in Schools Adds Energy to California Solar Rush

In 2004, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), already heavily invested in the future of California's energy efficiency, decided the solar rush should not be limited to the state's workforce. What resulted was an effort to bring solar energy education to California's public school system, ensuring that tomorrow's Californians become invested and committed to solar innovation while today's Californians build the industry's foundation.

The project, officially titled The Solar School Initiative, is turning K-12 public school playgrounds into science labs. Students can learn about solar energy hands on, for instance, by observing how a one-kilowatt (kW) pole-mounted photovoltaic (PV) system operates. The program also entails training workshops for teachers, a solar power curriculum and "Bright Ideas" grants for solar science projects in classes.

Launched in 2004, the program has helped the state's under-funded public school system bring new, relevant material into their curricula. Since then, PG&E has contributed nearly $9 million to 125 different solar schools throughout California. 123 of them are already up and running, and another two will be up in the coming weeks.

One thing the initiative does not support? Roof-mounted solar systems. Why? PG&E offers two main reasons for the stipulation.

First, rooftop systems do not facilitate learning about solar energy, as they are, more often than note, "out of sight, out of mind." The focus, then, has been on pole-mounted solar arrays, which are visible and easily accessible.

Second, each solar school that receives funds through the program must have the same installation to ensure consistent data is collected from each school. It's a clear-cut way to tell which schools are making the most out of their solar projects. If one school can't do rooftop, no one can.

Applicants for PG&E funding are chosen based on the system's level of visibility, the panels' proximity to the PG&E grid that collects data and the quality of the site's solar resource. The more visibility, the closer to the grid and the more solar access, the better chance to receive funding.

Since implementation, the program has been nationally recognized and awarded the Interstate Renewable Energy Council's Annual Innovation Award and has been named "Educational Innovator of the Year" by the San Francisco Business Times. Most notably, the program received the Governor's Environmental and Economic Leadership Award, the state's most prestigious environmental honor.

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