Summit Ridge Energy and Qcells make a huge investment in community solar projects. Also, EV school buses can make a big difference

Kamala Harris visiting Qcells factory in Dolton, Georgia

Community solar goes big time

Solar power can bring consumers a lot of benefits. Lower power bills, less dependence on the grid and access to clean, renewable energy. But putting solar panels on one’s roof isn’t an option for everyone. Renters, apartment dwellers, condo-owners or even people whose homes are surrounded by tall trees can’t own solar in traditional ways.

Community solar may be an option for those residents or others that simply can’t afford the upfront cost. Participants pay to subscribe to a community solar program and receive generation credits on their power bill to offset the cost of regular electricity. Overall, subscribers save an average of 10% over the course of a year. (1)

Community solar programs are considered by many to be an important part of the energy transition. Because the programs can bring lower energy costs to low-income households, they have become a priority to the Biden administration and many state governments. Currently, 17 states have mandates requiring community solar programs.

On April 6, 2023 those efforts received a major boost. Vice President Kamala Harris appeared at the Qcells factory in Dalton, Georgia and announced that community solar provider Summit Ridge Energy (SRE) had agreed to purchase 2.5 million solar panels from the manufacturer. The panels should eventually power nearly 350 community installations.

The 1.2 gigawatts worth of panels will be delivered over the course of several years, with 200,000 megawatts expected to deploy in 2023.

Although the Qcells factory is currently averaging around 12,000 panels per day by operating 24 hours per day, the factory is currently surrounded by construction as the company looks to triple its capacity in the next few years. The order is the largest ever for community solar and represents a major win for the growing factory.

  1. Community Solar Market Trends, Department of Energy
Tour bus parked

Buses are in line for a big upgrade

Being late for work while stuck behind a school bus making its rounds probably ranks as one of the most frustrating driving experiences around. Most school buses are slow, noisy, smelly and difficult to pass safely. But these mundane and slow vehicles are starting to go electric, and that should make a difference in our everyday lives.

School buses, more than almost any other vehicle, offer an easy way to make big improvements in energy consumption, air quality, and operating costs. But even more importantly, moving away from diesel to electric buses can improve long- and short-term health in kids.

It turns out diesel fumes emitted by school buses are really bad for your health and even worse for the passengers on board. Across the nation, as many as 15,000 premature deaths per year have been pinned to the pollution that comes from diesel vehicles. (1) Asthma, bronchitis and pneumonia are all linked with diesel emissions.

And school buses are particularly bad. They emit as much as twice the amount of pollution per mile as a typical diesel truck. One school bus can be responsible for up to 54,000 pounds of CO2 annually. (2) Collectively, school buses travel billions of miles each year in the U.S., so that pollution adds up.

But it’s not just how much pollution those ubiquitous orange buses emit. It’s where they emit it. By traveling so many miles primarily in residential areas, the buses bring their pollution to where people live. And even worse, the emissions concentrate in the passenger area where students can sit for long periods, oftentimes hitting levels as much as 12 times higher than the outside air. All that goes away with zero-emission vehicles like electric buses.

Keeping diesel emissions out of the air is an obvious benefit, but switching to electric buses offers other advantages as well. Another big one is that they’re quiet. Riding in an EV school bus turns out to be quieter than a diesel bus by around 24 decibels. Shouting over that noise to talk can rile kids up, but quiet buses help kids arrive at school calmer and more ready to learn. (3)

Children boarding a school bus

School buses to the rescue

One surprising benefit of EV buses is their potential as a backup battery. Vehicle-to-grid charging, which allows vehicle batteries to send energy out through a charging system, is becoming more commonplace and offers big benefits Last fall, Maine Senator Angus King introduced the BIDIRECTIONAL Act, designed to promote the use of electric buses to power the grid or critical buildings during natural disasters and other power outages.

A typical electric school bus has a battery capacity around 210 kWh. (4) That’s five times the size of a typical EV sedan, and 20 times the capacity of a home backup battery. With most school districts requiring dozens of school buses, their stored energy capacity can add up quickly. With climate change leading to more frequent disasters and increased grid instability, buses with high-capacity batteries that can power a cooling or heating center, or even a hospital, could be a lifesaving resource.

Of course, there’s a catch. An electric bus can cost up to $450,000, or four times as much as a diesel bus. Although maintenance and fuel costs make the overall cost of ownership less for EV buses, few school districts can afford the up-front investment required to make the switch. The 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, however, set aside $5 billion in funds to subsidize the switch. Even better, charging infrastructure is included in the same program.

In 2022, the EPA opened applications for the grants. The response was overwhelming, and the budget for that year’s round of grants was doubled to $1 billion. (5) Over 400 districts were selected, and nearly 2,500 electric buses will be deployed as part of the program. The 2023 application cycle is set to begin in coming months.

So, next time you’re stuck behind a school bus, look to see if it’s electric powered. If it is, breathe a deep sigh of relief, knowing the air you’re breathing is a little cleaner.

Weekly Sunsong

The Who are best known for their 70s hard rock anthems Baba O’Riley, Who Are You? and Won’t Get Fooled Again, but in 1968, they had a top-forty hit with this week’s Sunsong, Magic Bus.