Sunshine and school hours coincide, making our educational facilities perfect candidates for solar power.

Wellington's Maungaraki Primary School has knocked back power consumption by nearly 70 per cent, cutting around $5000 from its electricity bill in the year since it put photovoltaic solar panels on classroom roofs.

Up the road Naenae Primary has cut its power bill in half after installing solar panels.

Both schools are pouring the money saved into converting to LED lighting, which could potentially cut lighting bills in half - the biggest drain on schools' energy costs.

The work has been done with the help of eco-enthusiast and cameraman Mike Rathbone, who hit on the idea when looking down on the local school from his hilltop Hutt Valley home.


He could see an opportunity for schools to generate power - and money - by harnessing the sun's rays during the school day. And now Rathbone has set up an online resource for schools wishing to follow suit at

The Ministry of Education funds school power, water and heating budgets based on the average power use for a similar sized school in the same area.

Currently if a school can save power it can pocket the difference, without being penalised by the ministry.

"It means year after year after year for 25 years or more they're going to be saving that money and putting it to something else," says Rathbone.

He says technology costs are also falling as manufacturing becomes more efficient, meaning the $28,000 cost for the 2014 projects is already out of date.

Four Hutt Valley primary schools have benefited from Rathbone's expertise, which he provides for free on his dedicated website.

"If I can go through the whole process and do the research for them and then put all that information together on a website it saves everybody reinventing the wheel right around the country," he says.

Not only does the website provide a complete "how-to" guide there are also teaching resources prepared by Rathbone's wife Vivienne, a primary school teacher.


While schools could potentially sell extra power back to power companies outside of school hours the buy-back rate is low.

Rathbone says power companies aren't particularly keen on the solar panels and he'd like some more community-minded suppliers to offer schools a better buy-back rate during school holidays.

He says schools looking for a fast way to cut power bills should install LED lighting.

For those keen to step up to solar panels Rathbone recommends a minimum of 10kW for a small school, with colleges putting up at least 20kW at a time.

Long term he'd like to see storage batteries installed at some schools, setting them up as off-the-grid operations capable of assisting during major disasters.

"We should be aiming towards setting schools up as civil defence centres because really schools are the centre of the community.

"Everybody knows where their local school is."

A case study

When Maungaraki Primary School decided to line its rooftops with solar panels it called on the G-Force.

The tight group of environmentally focussed students, dubbed the G-Force, managed the project from start to finish, overseeing the installation of 40 solar panels on the roof of the Hutt Valley school.

Helped along with advice from Rathbone, the school pupils chose a supplier and raised most of the $30,000 needed for the project by applying for grants, donations and sponsorship.

As well as teaching leadership skills, principal Lisa Cavanagh says the project gave the G-Force students a real-life context for the reading, writing and maths skills learnt in the classroom.

She says the plan needed sign-off from the Ministry of Education before panels were put on ministry-owned buildings and some minor repair work on the roofs completed in advance of installation but other than that installing the panels ran smoothly, with the whole process taking just a couple of days during the 2014 summer holidays.

What did take a bit of time was getting the power company on board.

The school chose to change supplier at the same time, which meant for two months it was supplying excess power to the grid without being paid for it while post-installation certification for the system was completed, says Cavanagh.

The real savings are to be made through a reduced power bill rather than the few cents per kilowatt made selling power back to the grid, she says.

The school is continuing with the energy savings with a plan to convert all its lighting to LED.

"We will definitely look at extending the number of solar panels at a later date."

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