From installing panels on rooftops to buying into solar gardens, south-metro school districts are investing in solar energy, hoping to conserve resources and improve their bottom lines.

In 2014, Waconia High School put 96 solar panels on its new gymnasium roof, while the West St. Paul-Mendota Heights-Eagan district is finalizing the contracts that will place solar panels on two schools next summer.

The Farmington school board approved installing solar panels on five district buildings last week, with plans to outfit all nine buildings.

The energy savings on just those five structures will total $77,760 annually, but if the district eventually buys the panels as planned, energy bills would be reduced by $7 million over 20 years, said Jane Houska, Farmington’s finance director.

Solar energy is becoming a popular investment for cities and counties, too, driven by the same factors that are enticing schools to get on board, said Jason Willett, sustainability director for the Metropolitan Council.

“Solar, in particular, is going through a cost curve that sees the cost come down substantially,” Willett said. “If you can take a long view, you can make money on it.”

Using a renewable energy source also has benefits for its own sake — and having the panels on site, where kids can learn about them, provides a real-world stewardship lesson, district officials said.

“I like the environmental aspect of solar,” said Todd Swanson, finance and operations director for the Waconia district. “We just think in the long term, it’s the right thing to do.”

He estimates that the district saves $5,000 to $10,000 annually with the panels but that it will save $100,000 a year when it buys them in 14 years, he said.

Panels vs. gardens

Schools have long been interested in solar energy but couldn’t invest the large sums needed up front, said Jamie Borell, operations manager for Innovative Power Systems, a developer and installer of solar — or photovoltaic — panels.

Now, federal tax credit programs make it profitable for a third party, such as a bank or an energy company, to purchase panels and install them at a cost of $130,000 to $150,000.

The district pays nothing up front but pays several thousand dollars a year to a third party for the panels — and gets to use the electricity its panels produce. When it has paid off the panels’ cost, the electricity produced saves the district money on its utility bills for at least another 10 to 25 years.

While some districts use their own rooftops as the site of their panels, there’s another option: community solar gardens.

West St. Paul and Waconia have signed agreements to subscribe to solar gardens, composed of acres of solar panels at another location. The gardens produce energy that a power company buys. An investor, like a school district, gets credits on its energy bill, with the credits’ value increasing as energy costs go up.

The garden approach is nice because “there’s less hassles, less risk,” Waconia’s Swanson said. “You’re going to see a lot of schools [investing in] the community solar gardens.”

Still, having dozens of solar panels comes with the benefit of providing a place to learn about energy production, said Mark Fortman, operations director for the Eagan district. After the panels are installed at two schools, those sites will have an indoor display showing the amount of energy produced in real time, he said.

In Waconia, Swanson said that having a demonstration site was an important reason to go solar.

“You can walk your science class over there and they can look at it and check it out,” he said.