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Solar Master Planning

195 minutes
Primary subjects: 
Career and Technical Education (CTE): Agriculture, Food & Natural Resources, Career and Technical Education (CTE): Architecture & Construction, Career and Technical Education (CTE): STEM, Engineering, Environmental Education, Science
9, 10, 11, 12
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Students utilize design tools (e.g. online drafting tools) to assess their campus’s capacity and need for solar energy. Students will design a solar master plan to present to their district’s energy management team. For schools that already have solar photovoltaic energy, students can create a master plan for another building or campus in their community.

Community/Career Connections: Students will utilize localized climate data and news from their communities to learn more about what’s going on in their own backyard. Students will have access to various resources to understand the environmental justice history of their area and start to plan their Student Action Project.

Key objectives for students
Utilize design tools (e.g. online drafting tools) to assess their campus’s capacity and need for solar energy
Design a solar master plan to present to their district’s energy management team
Create a master plan for another building or campus in their community
Energy, Renewable energy, electrical energy, electrical generation process, energy transformation and energy transfer, renewable versus nonrenewable energy sources
Collaboration, Communication skills, Creative problem solving, Critical Thinking, Digital citizenship, Systems thinking
Curiosity, Optimism, Resilience
Brain-Based Learning, Design Thinking, Multi-Disciplinary, Multiple Intelligences, Project-Based Learning, Real-World Application, Technology Integration
Background information for teachers

For hundreds of years, humans have harnessed solar energy. Radiant solar energy can be captured as heat energy (usually referred to as solar thermal energy). Solar thermal energy is commonly harnessed through windows to warm homes. It is also used to cook food, dry laundry, and heat water for showers, dishwashers, and pools. Throughout the world, homes are built in a way that takes advantage of the sun’s warmth and light.

These days, we have the technology of solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, which convert light energy directly into electricity. PV panels are popping up on the roofs of homes, schools, businesses, and government buildings all over the world. This energy technology can help give electrical access to people living in remote areas, lower consumer electrical bills, and reduce humanity’s carbon emissions.

Solar energy is a renewable resource. As long as the sun shines, we can continue to harness its energy. When sunlight is converted to electricity using PV panels, there is no pollution emitted. Solar energy is an important earth-friendly component of our power mix. Using solar power reduces our reliance on non-renewable resources and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. By using solar power, help ourselves and help the environment.

Read the Energy from the Sun text.

Materials needed
Key vocabulary
green building, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED), master planning, silicon, solar photovoltaic (PV) cell, solar photovoltaic (pv) panel
Time Exercise Description
25 minutes Introduce
90 Minutes Investigate
45 minutes Debrief

Engage: The Solar Cell

Create a solar circuit by attaching the solar cell, motor, and propeller included in your toolkit. Place in a sunny area. Students should consider the following questions:

  • How does a solar cell convert the sun’s energy into electrical energy?
  • Do you think the solar cell uses the sun’s light or the sun’s heat? Cover part of the solar cell and see what effect this has on the propeller’s speed.
  • Why might it be important to carefully consider where solar panels are placed?

Discussion: How Our School, Community, and Family Are Currently Using Solar Energy
Think about and discuss the benefits of using sunlight to power up appliances, lights, and HVAC system on our school campus. (Answers will vary: decrease dependency on fossil fuels, reduce pollution, rely on a sustainable energy source, etc.)

For a school campus WITHOUT solar panel technology:

  • Survey the campus to identify areas where the installation of a panel or system would be ideal. Consider location and orientation (think north, northeast, east, and so on).
  • Conduct a campus survey or site visit. Write observational notes and questions. Later, work to design your own solar system plan, whether on school grounds, rooftops, and/or elsewhere.

For a school campus WITH solar panel technology:

  • Discuss your campus’s current use of solar technology. Identify what you already know, and what you would like to learn about this technology.
  • As a class, walk the campus and conduct a solar power survey. Identify where your school’s solar panels are and how they were installed. Identify the attachment method (rack, bracket) and the orientation (tilt, angle). Once you return to class, access the information you obtained regarding how much electricity is being generated by the system. If data is available for recent or past days/weeks, you can try to compare a sunny to an overcast day.
  • Instead of designing a solar master plan for your campus, research information on other locations in the community that would benefit from solar power. Each group can identify a non-solar building or campus somewhere in the community (e.g., shopping center, mall, high school, library, courthouse, etc.) that would benefit from having solar panels.
  • Tip: Contact your school’s energy manager to find out how to access data on how much energy is being generated by the panel(s). S/he should be able to share how you can track the amount of energy generated by the solar system. The solar power company that furnished and installed your system may offer an online dashboard where customers can view both energy consumption and solar energy production over time.

You will be master planning as a team of solar engineers and green architects to design a solar installation plan for a school campus. What is an engineer? An architect? Who is necessary in this type of project? (Answers will vary: Someone who creates design plans for structures, communicates the plan to the client, manage projects, uses mathematics for efficient and aesthetic design.)

Use Google Project Sunroof to select your school building. Discuss any foreseen issues that Project Sunroof may alert you to: such as high levels of shading, irregular roof shape, etc. Search other possible locations in their community such as their homes, local libraries or recreation centers, etc.

  • Special note: Some schools have solar panels. For this lesson, teams will be designing and presenting on a solar master plan for either your own campus OR, if your campus already benefits from solar power, then for another building (e.g., courthouse, library) or campus (e.g., shopping center, hospital) in the community. Please refer to either specific directions below according to whether or not you already have solar power on your campus.

Design a Solar Master Plan for a Campus

You will be using either the Sketchup Make or Daft Logic online program. Groups should have access to computers with Internet in order to use either one of the drafting programs. Review the instructions for each program found on the online learning platform under the Course Materials to determine which you would like to use, and then familiarize yourself with the program before getting started.

  • SketchUp Make
  • Google Area Maps: Daft Logic
    • Go to Projects: Area Map Calculator
      Work in master-planning teams of four to five (4–5). Design a master plan for either your campus or for another campus or building in the community. Share your designs on social media using @1MillionEnergyActions to show students in other communities how to bring solar technologies to their campuses.

Part I: Using Online Drafting Tools to Calculate Area

1. Organize into master-planning teams of four to five.

2. Share highlights from survey notes and conceptual ideas for a creating a solar panel system on the selected campus.

3. Calculate the surface area where you would like to hypothetically install solar panels on the chosen building or campus. Keep note of the surface area(s) measurements— you will need the measurements to complete your plan.

Part II: Design a Solar Master Plan
1. Using the Design Estimation handout, calculate monetary and energy savings over time. Write down the Big Idea (e.g., We will combine all potential solar areas to determine how much solar energy our plan will produce). Then, plug in measurements from the online drafting tool used (which may be stored in your notebook).

  • Below is an excerpt from a final report after other students completed their solar master plans. What stands out to you? What could your school do with that amount of monetary savings?
    • The District Energy Manager noted that the District currently generates almost 10% of their annual energy demand from photovoltaics, totaling nearly 4,000 kW. The De Portola Middle School Solar Master Plan will add another 250 kW to their portfolio, saving an estimated 390,000 kWh (or $70,000) annually. The District intends to replicate this effort at other schools in their portfolio, and generate a minimum of 50% of all their energy needs through photovoltaics by 2030. – Excerpt from the De Portola Middle School Student Action Project: Potential results!

Create a solar master plan!

2. Using an online image of the aerial view of the building (or saved/printed copy) sketch a large version of the campus on a poster/foam board.

3. Using art and craft supplies, such as paper, glue, cardboard, clean trash (milk cartons, cereal boxes, etc.), add three-dimensional “buildings” - the W x L (width times length) dimensions can be determined from the aerial shot and from measurements calculated from one of the online drafting programs.

4. Cut out paper solar panels from color paper (preferably blue, black, or purple) to represent the panels to “install” on your master plan model.

5. Use the online tool to scale the panel(s) to size. Stick the paper panels onto the site plan maps.

6. Have teams complete plans and ROI - School Solar Panel - Design Estimation handout. Teams should take time to be detailed in designs.

Work to prepare for presentations. ROI - School Solar Panel - Design Estimation handout pages may be used with site plan models to develop a case in favor of your team’s proposed Solar Master Plan.

  • Tip: Make arrangements to present your solar master plan to someone who may be influential in bringing solar to your campus (e.g., building administrator, school board member, district energy manager). If your school has solar power, invite community stakeholders, such as a library board member for the library or a town/city planner, etc.
Reflection Questions
  • How do we convert light energy from our sun into electrical energy?
  • How can we increase our solar energy use - and better integrate it into our smart grid?
Standards assessment

Next Generation Science Standards

  • HS-ESS3-1: Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity.
  • HS-ESS3-2: Evaluate competing design solutions for developing, managing, and utilizing energy and mineral resources based on cost-benefit ratios.
  • HS-ESS3-3: Create a computational simulation to illustrate the relationships among the management of natural resources, the sustainability of human populations, and biodiversity.
  • HS-ESS3-4: Evaluate or refine a technological solution that reduces impacts of human activities on natural systems.
  • HS-ESS3-5: Analyze geoscience data and the results from global climate models to make an evidence-based forecast of the current rate of global or regional climate change and associated future impacts to Earth's systems.
  • HS-ESS3-6: Use a computational representation to illustrate the relationships among Earth systems and how those relationships are being modified due to human activity.

California Career Technical Education Model Curriculum Standards
Engineering and Architecture
Energy Environment and Utilities

Community connections

What is the Connection to your backyard?

You have been put on a task force to design your community’s energy portfolio. Move through the resources below to learn about current news in your community, data being gathered there, and people who work in the relevant industries. Keep the following questions in mind as you read:

  • What is the timeline to implement your energy portfolio?
  • What existing limitations of the grid need to be considered?
  • Think about what political factors may affect your plan.
  • Are your ideas for the energy portfolio financially sustainable?
  • How can you design the grid for long-term resilience?


  • Learn about an alternative energy project in Richmond.
  • Read about the history of a Contra Costa County power plant.
  • Use Google Scholar to research something related to the energy you are curious about. Use keywords from the module to guide your search.

Climate Data:

  • Google Project Sunroof - Data Explorer (Beta)
    • Navigate to the Data Explorer tab on the website and search for your community’s estimated solar potential and amount of existing solar arrays.
  • Climate Investment Map
    • Navigate to the About section to learn how California is leading efforts in renewable energy projects.
    • Navigate to the Map section and search for your community. Find an example of a clean energy project near you.
  • SF Bay Area Carbon Footprint Map
    • Zoom to where you live and explore what industries have the biggest carbon footprint in your area by navigating through the different tabs.

Now that you’ve built your knowledge of energy concepts and explored what happens in your local community, let’s apply it! You have the opportunity to plan ways you can empower people and change what’s going on in your backyard. Do you see any energy projects happening in or around your school? How can you use what you’ve learned to benefit yourself, your friends, your family, and your community? Think about people working in the field you can connect with. We can’t wait to see what you come up with!

Professional Development Opportunities

The Energy Coalition equips industry practitioners with the expertise needed to tackle complex technical challenges essential to project realization; and designing and delivering leading-edge training and instruction to develop industry knowledge and leadership. To learn more, visit