“I’d put my money on the sun and solar energy.”
~ Thomas Edison, American inventor (1847–1931)
Once or twice a month, I have been getting these emails and phone calls from schools in the region, asking me, “How did you do it?”… How did we organise a successful crowdfunding campaign providing a 37-panel rooftop solar energy system to South Geelong Primary School? Could others do the same?
This blogpost has been put together to give you an idea about how it all came about and what it took to make it happen. It also touches on some of those surprisingly great, unexpected social and educational wins we encountered during our one and a half year long journey with this campaign.
As many things do, it started with an idea. The idea, in this case, was to start some sort of concrete activity that would help reduce some carbon emissions. As simple as that.
As a radio journalist at The Sustainable Hour on 94.7 The Pulse, I had been talking up and down the walls about this topic – the global climate emergency. Climate scientists are telling us there is an urgent need for us stop polluting our common atmosphere, but our elected leaders procrastinate, and we keep adding billions of tonnes of carbon pollution into the atmosphere every year. Mainstream society so far has chosen to simply ignore that this already now has dramatic implications on our climate, and that it will become even more dramatic, and deadly, in the decades to come.
I had been chatting with some parents and the principal at our local school about it. My son Alex, who was eight years old at the time, had outlined a simple solution to the problem, which I helped him put into writing and turned into this little booklet. Alex had enjoyed learning about ‘Sustainability’ as a special theme of his fourth term that year. He never talked about ‘carbon emissions’, though – in his terminology, the problem was the ‘Evil Smoke’.
With three children in the age from 7 to 11, I see it as my responsibility as a parent to pay attention to this so-called ‘evil smoke’ which we all have a stake in producing – when we drive our petrol cars, when we buy almost anything, because it has all been produced, baked, cooked and transported with energy based on fossil fuels, causing ‘evil smoke’. To a point where I know I am annoying both my family and friends, I can’t help starting conversations about this. Not so much about the problem, though, but about the solutions. What it is we all have to do now to change this dire situation our planet is in.
Our kids’ school seemed to me like a perfect place to start a community solar fundraising project, because of those activities it would create and the many conversations this could trigger – in the class rooms, in school yard, and possibly most importantly: in the homes of the students.
Putting solar on our own roof at home would, at best, inspire a few close neighbours and a couple of friends. Doing it on a school roof could potentially inspire and engage the 320 students of the school, plus their parents and the wider community.
A New Year’s resolution
It was a New Year’s party, as we were entering 2014, that made me commit to actually doing it. New Year’s resolutions can have that kind of effect. At a Geelong Green Drinks event, we were asked to write on badges what we would do differently next year, and I made a resolution – a pledge – that in 2015, I’d start a community solar project.
I’m a member of Geelong Sustainability’s committee and through 2014, I had developed an ‘Energise Geelong’ guide (www.geelongsustainability.org.au/energise) which showed ways individuals are able to address the CO2-emissions problem. What stood out was that if someone wanted to make a donation, we had no local projects that we could refer them to.
In 2014, a teacher and the principal of South Geelong Primary had launched a ‘Green Team’ consisting of students from most classes in the school, and during the year, some of the parents of the ‘green students’ had been talking together about the new initiatives.
I brought six of Green Team parents together with the two people behind Energy for the People, who I had met at a community energy conference, and with approval from the principal and the school board, we agreed to use their crowdfunding platform, The People’s Solar.
The committee of Geelong Sustainability approved to make this crowdfunding campaign an official pilot project in the organisation, and after three months of initial talks and meetings, we now seemed to have a good mix of partners with different background and networks in the community.
Eager to get on with it, we were ready for take-off. The online crowdfunding campaign was launched on www.thepeoplessolar.com in March 2015, and Alex Houlston from Energy for the People and I as a Geelong Sustainability committee member announced this together with principal Leanne Dowling at an assembly at the school. Over a couple of hours afterwards, that same morning, we went on a ‘tour’ to each of the school’s classes to explain more in detail to all students what the idea with this project was.
Bang! The project was running. Now we needed to see some money rolling in. We put up a big sign with a ‘money-thermometer’ at the school’s fence, so that any bypasser would be able to see how the project was going. “Goal: $30,000 dollars”, it said – of which we planned to spend $20,000 on the solar panels and $10,000 on energy efficiency initiatives such as LED lighting.
We launched the project at the annual school carnival, where we had a yabby-race, and collected $74. It was a great afternoon – and also a bit of a reality check. We realised there is a long way to go from $74 to $30,000. We realised that we’d probably have to get even more creative with how to get more coins in the bucket.
Inspired by the concept of The People’s Solar, the outset for our activities was that it should be about the sustainability education of the students, rather than about simply saving costs on the school’s electricity bill. The People’s Solar has this principle that a part, if not all, of the solar cost savings must be used to generate a so-called ‘community dividend’.
In our case we figured the solar system and LED lighting would be sufficient to raise around $6,000 dollars per year – the equivalent of what the school could save on its electricity bills because of its free solar energy – which could then be used for educational purposes such as excursions and film screenings, and for new infrastructure in the school such as new bike sheds, or a home for some chickens.
The kids started extremely enthusiastically to collect coins in jars. They started at home, asking parents and grand parents. Some of them went further and started going out door-knocking in the streets in the neighbourhood. They organised weekly competitions between the classes about which class would have collected most. A few families donated larger sums, over $100. One family donated $200.
We produced this little youtube-video to explain to parents and local businesses what the project was about:
On a warm and sunny Sunday in October 2015, we organised a ‘solar picnic’ in a park with Treasure Hunt competition, music performances, BYO food, and a raffle:
The Solar Buskers
At the picnic, brothers Alex (Grade 4) and Matt (Grade 2) had their debut as ‘solar buskers’ with a solar song they already knew by heart because their dad had played it numerous times in their car.
Their sister Eva (Grade 1) stepped in as a dancer. When they counted the coins in the hat on the ground, they realised that they had collected $17 in cash in just three minutes, which was a bit of a wild moment for the three young first-time buskers.
Less than one week later, they had produced a music video, so that the busker message could be spread via the Internet as well:
This was when the project really started to build a fun and creativity dimension in our own little family. The Solar Buskers became like a band, which created publicity and articles for the crowdfunding project, even overseas (in Denmark), and they performed with their solar song dozens of times at markets, festivals, rallies and events.
When Solar Edge, the Israeli solar company which had composed the lyrics for the song, heard about this, they instantly offered to donate $4,000 worth of solar power inverters to the project. It eventually turned out that the Geelong climate wasn’t suitable for this type of inverters, but it was a great feeling even to have been getting an offer like that, just because of a music video.
RenewEconomy’s magazine One Step Off The Grid wrote this article about the project:
Young solar buskers help crowd funding push for school solar
Obstacle course and cakes
To keep the fundraiser flowing, the Green Team and their parents regularly organised fundraiser cake stalls, games, competitions, and a major ‘solar obstacle course’ at the annual school carnival.
Together with The People’s Solar, Geelong Sustainability and the school, we worked out a business ‘sponsorship package’, which offered long term advertisement space in the school’s newsletter and billboard space on the fence in return for a donation. A small number of local businesses from the area contributed with three-digit donations, but overall this campaign wasn’t a huge success.
Organisational push and a community grant
Geelong Sustainability’s commitment to the project was a substantial and invaluable element. Right from the very start, volunteers participated with a fundraiser stall at at the school carnival, the group’s president Dan Cowdell gave an interview, helped with critique and suggestions to the fundraiser video, and also spruiked it in the media, in speeches at Geelong Green Drinks and at other local events events – whenever there was an opportunity.
The group organised a fundraiser raffle at one of its Green Drinks events which added $225, and Geelong Sustainability also donated $100.
Dan helped nudging the project along in periods when energy levels were getting low and things where starting to stall. Most significantly, he wrote a grant application to Geelong Connected Communities which was successful and in one huge jump added $5,000 to the project – and to the ‘money’-thermometer which at the time for a looooong period had been stuck around the $4,000 mark. This became a great energy booster and created a ‘confidence tipping point’: now we knew we were going to make this happen – it would only be a question of time, and our ability to persevere, keep pushing.
» Listen to the radio show:
‘The Green Teams’ solar dream: New energy in the school’
When the school had collected almost $13,000 dollars, we learned that the system which one and a half year earlier had been estimated to cost $20,000 now could be installed for around $13,000. Solar prices keep falling! So we decided to say ‘enough’ and stop at the $13,000-mark while skipping the idea that we’d also be funding new energy efficient LED-lightbulbs for the school. This was also because new schemes were coming up where the school would be able to fund its energy efficiency needs in other ways.
So, on Earth Day, 22 April 2016, the panels were finally installed on the school’s roof. It was a big day for everyone who had been involved.
The official launch and inauguration of South Geelong Primary School’s crowdfunded solar system took place on 10 June 2016. Member of Parliament for Geelong, Christine Couzens and school principal, Leanne Dowling congratulated the students, teachers, parents, The People’s Solar, Geelong Sustainability and members of the community and a long list of supporters for their great collective efforts — at Geelong South Primary School.
The local community, supporters and stake holders came to celebrate the school’s new role as “an active player in the clean energy revolution”.
The solar installer, Aaron Lewtas, showed on a screen how the students, teachers and parents now would be able to follow the solar system’s performance online with real time monitoring.
Member of the Victorian Parliament for Geelong, Christine Couzens (ALP), had shown her support to the project from its very beginning.
— Geelong Sustain Gp (@geelongsustain) June 9, 2016
Geelong Sustainability uploaded these photos for sharing in social media.
Related articles on Geelong Sustainability’s website:
Seeing the solar panels up on that roof was something that made a lot of people proud. Even the city’s Council, apparently, as it was reflected when City of Greater Geelong published a media release about the project which said:
South Geelong Primary launches 37-panel solar energy system to promote sustainability
South Geelong Primary School has taken on a leading role in the global clean energy revolution.
City of Greater Geelong General Manager City Services William Tieppo congratulated the school today as staff, students, parents and supporters officially launched a 37-panel solar energy system on the school’s roof.
Mr Tieppo said South Geelong Primary had worked since 2014 to raise $13,000 for the system through online crowd funding platform The People’s Solar, and through fundraising activities, such as classroom coin competitions, cake stalls, raffles and a solar obstacle course at the school’s annual carnival.
A dedicated “green team” of staff and parents also collected generous community donations and a Geelong Connected Community grant for the solar project.
“Not only will South Geelong Primary School save money on its electricity bills but staff will now also have an opportunity to educate students about sustainability,” he said.
“This is a fantastic initiative that the City supports through the adoption of the One Planet Living principle of zero carbon. Geelong is one of only three cities in Australia to be awarded a One Planet certification.”
“As well as achieving One Planet Living certification for our own operations, we look forward to continuing great partnerships with our community and encourage everyone to join us by adopting the principles for homes, business, organisations or community groups to become a sustainable region.”
South Geelong Primary School Principal Leanne Dowling said students were excited to officially launch the solar panel system. “It’s been fantastic to see the enthusiasm of our school community in taking ownership of this project,” Ms Dowling said.
“From the beginning everyone jumped on board with a plan to reduce our energy consumption and save that money to invest in other sustainability initiatives.”
“The energy we save will go back into the grid and the money we save on bills will be used to build a bike shelter, a vegetable garden and potentially a chicken coop.”
Geelong’s leading local newspaper, Geelong Advertiser, published an article about the project on 16 June 2016. It said:
School energised by people power
By Shane Fowles
South Geelong Primary has been re-energised after a successful two-year fundraising campaign to go clean and green.
The school has raised $13,000 to buy a 37-panel rooftop solar energy system, with its power savings to be re-directed towards other sustainability initiatives.
“It’s been fantastic to see the enthusiasm of our school community in taking ownership of this project,” principal Leanne Dowling said.
“The energy we save will go back into the grid and the money we save on bills will be used to build bike storage, an orchard of fruit trees and potentially a chicken coop.”
A group of students’ parents teamed with Geelong Sustainability to manage an online crowdfunding campaign through The People’s Solar.
Through classroom coin competitions, cake stalls, raffles and public donations, a ‘green team’ of parents and school staff reached its goal.
The City of Greater Geelong’s city services general manager, William Tieppo, said Cleantech Innovations Geelong had donated $10,000 to The People’s Solar to support other community projects.
“Not only will South Geelong Primary School save money on its electricity bills but staff will now also have an opportunity to educate students about sustainability,” he said.
“This is a fantastic initiative that the City supports through the adoption of the One Planet Living principle of zero carbon.
Geelong schools: Now let’s do some more of this
Today, the project continues to roll ahead beautifully! There is not one child in SGPS who doesn’t know what solar is now, and the solar panels and the monitoring system is used actively in the school’s classes.
In terms of the ‘community dividend’, we don’t know yet what it will be, but it has been estimated to equate to around $2,500 per year, given the LED lighting upgrades eventually weren’t funded by the community.
SGPS was a pioneer, and especially the students are to be congratulated for their enthusiasm and support. There have been lessons learned by all parties, and we must thank Leanne Dowling, the school board and the teachers team for their optimism, patience and guidance.
The People’s Solar and Energy for the People are busy moving on. They have opened other solar systems, are helping entire towns with obtaining energy independence, and they have partnered with Pozible, who provide hands-on crowd-funding tips and support. Solar crowd-funding projects in schools have a bright future – and we are pushing to see the Geelong region to be at the forefront of this movement!
New school solar fundraiser project
As we speak, Aireys Inlet Primary School is currently aiming to raise $20,500 for a big 15kW solar system. Savings are anticipated to be $3,500 a year, which – like at South Geelong Primary – is going to be invested in the students’ education for many years to come. The savings the school makes on the its energy bills will fund:
1. Redesigning and replanting the vegetable garden
2. Creating a industrial-standard kitchen for the cooking sessions at the school and employing a chef for the classes
3. Developing a passive cooling solution for classrooms by growing a living wall and a rain garden
4. Constructing a frog pond – to complete the biospheres developed in and around the school
If you would like to support this great project, you can donate here:
If anyone has local school contacts who may be interested in starting a solar fundraising project, feel free to send them through to us. Contact details here.
Huonville High School – winner of the Zayed Future Energy Prize
Huonville High School is located in an area on the Australian island Tasmania which has traditionally relied on the forest industry until a recent downturn. Now, the team of 18 students have put the small country town on the map with green solutions for their school. They designed a range of sustainable solutions, including retro-fitting a school building from a 0.5-star energy rating to a six-star energy rating. They will now also build a bicycle-powered cinema, a bio-digester, more solar panels and a windmill.
» ABC – 17 January 2017:
Huonville High School picks up $133,000 international sustainable energy award
Origin’s new product ‘Solar as a Service’
“The energy retailer estimated that Clonard College, a Catholic girls secondary school located in Geelong, Victoria, could save $51,000 over a 15 year term with Solar as a Service.”
Origin advertisement: How Businesses Can Save On Electricity Costs
“If you own a business, Solar as a Service could benefit you. Rosalie from Origin talks about how you could reduce your electricity costs, without buying a solar system.”
Published on youtube.com on 14 September 2016.
“Carbon is not the enemy”
In reference to the concept of ‘evil smoke’ mentioned in the introduction of this blogpost, William McDonough – a world-renowned architect, designer and urban planner, author of books such as ‘Cradle to Cradle’, and ‘The Upcycle’ as well as the idea of a circular economy – argues that citizens and politicians have to change the conversation about carbon.
Climate change, he maintains, is a design failure, a breakdown in the natural carbon cycle caused by humans. By rethinking how we design things, especially cities, we can restore the natural carbon cycle and exploit it for human gain, creating positive environmental impacts rather than harm.
“Architect William McDonough says the world should exploit carbon as an asset, not demonize it as a liability”
» Scientific American – 14 November 2016:
New View: Carbon Is Not the Enemy
Australian citizens fight for the climate
Australia’s government may have reversed the carbon tax, but its climate-savvy citizens won’t drop the ball. In the state of South Australia, a whopping 25 per cent of citizens have solar panels on their homes. In New South Wales, leaders are pushing ahead with an ambitious target of generating 33 per cent of the state’s electricity by 2020 and introducing efficiency efforts aimed at cutting energy waste.
» Climate Reality Project:
Solar Success Stories
Solar facts and figures
• Solar power employs over 2.5 million people around the world.
• Global solar PV capacity has increased from 3.7 gigawatts in 2004 to 177 gigawatts in 2014. That’s nearly 48x the solar in just 10 years. With so much progress in such a short time, the future of solar power looks bright.
• Solar power gets cheaper and more efficient every day.
• The cost of solar panels today is about 100 times lower than in 1977 – and sunshine is free!
» The Climate Reality Project:
Top Solar Energy Myths (PDF)