Of all the places to plant a crop of solar panels, proponents suggest that few are better than the roof of a school.

Consider its primary physical attribute: all that, often, flat surface - assuming, of course, it is not shaded by a dense tree canopy.

And the economic appeal: There's the drop in energy costs that going solar provides, and the opportunity for school districts to make money by selling the power harnessed from the summer sun that's not needed when classrooms are empty and the lights are off.

Working off that premise, New Jersey legislators are pushing a bill that would prohibit the commissioner of education from approving construction of any new school unless plans include solar panels. Bill A1084, which passed the Assembly Education Committee on Sept. 16, would apply to schools built by a school district or by the New Jersey Schools Development Authority.

In Pennsylvania, the Department of Education plans to announce administrative changes to its school-construction policies during a Web conference Friday "that will reduce barriers for school districts when they consider making green and sustainable investments," said Michael Walsh, deputy secretary for administration.

Though there is a growing list of states that require new publicly funded buildings to meet certain energy-efficiency standards, solar installers nationally said they were unaware of any state that has mandated incorporating solar panels, as New Jersey has proposed.

In Pennsylvania, Dennis Maloskey, director of sustainable engineering and development at the Governor's Green Government Council, cites a number of reasons why more such mandates do not exist, especially for schools.

"Not all sites lend themselves to the successful application of solar technologies," Maloskey said. "Yet virtually every school building can cost-effectively improve its energy-use intensity through conservation and efficiency improvements."

Conservation is key, too

Assemblyman Peter J. Barnes III (D., Middlesex), a prime sponsor of the New Jersey bill, agrees that energy conservation has to be part of any school's efforts. But he adds that requiring solar on every new public school "makes sense" economically.

"It's a cost-saving measure," Barnes said, noting that school districts are in need of such financial help as their "budgets are rising faster than municipal budgets."

The measure's lead sponsor, Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D., Princeton/Trenton), said the mandate would be a "wonderful" accompaniment to the $3 billion in funding for school construction that was recently approved - especially with New Jersey second only to California in the total number and total installed capacity in megawatts of solar-photovoltaic installations.

Gusciora said his intent also is to help foster more green jobs and support an industry that has established such a substantial presence in New Jersey, which does not have the kind of significant natural-resource-based economy Pennsylvania has with coal.

"It's a smart thing to do, particularly when New Jersey has a cottage solar-panel industry," he said.

Smooth sailing

Gusciora and Barnes said they did not expect insurmountable resistance to the bill.

A spokesman for the New Jersey School Boards Association, an advocacy group for the state's 588 public school districts, called the proposed legislation "a laudable idea," though in need of a tweak.

Said spokesman Mike Yaple, "We're looking for the addition of two words to the bill: where feasible."

A city school, for instance, might be in the shadow of a taller building or might not have enough rooftop to justify a solar installation, Yaple said, and the ability to sell power back to the grid is not assured statewide.

Otherwise, he said, the association is in favor of schools going solar, considering that such projects not only are responsible from an energy-savings perspective, but also are "a form of property-tax relief."

The New Jersey Department of Education said it did not comment on pending legislation.

In Pennsylvania, bills are pending in the state House and Senate that would require most new or substantially renovated state-owned or state-funded buildings to meet high-performance green standards. Those bills originally included schools, eliminated while the state Department of Education worked on changes to its school-construction requirements, said Janet Milkman, executive director of the Delaware Valley Green Building Council.

"We support the bills without the schools in there because the system for funding schools makes it really difficult . . . to pay any additional up-front costs that might be associated with meeting a high-performing building standard," said Milkman, who has advised the Education Department on the changes it plans to announce Friday.

Neither she nor the department's Walsh would provide the details of those changes, or others in the works.

Going solar is a hefty investment for anyone - even more so for schools. As tax-exempt entities, they don't qualify for the 30 percent federal tax credit or any of the available state tax incentives that have induced so many homeowners and businesses to take the leap, said Alex Sarly, a senior project developer for Borrego Solar Systems Inc., of San Diego.

But installation companies such as his can qualify for such credits, so they frequently own the school solar systems they install and sell the power to the districts, Sarly said.

Schools in New Jersey are better positioned to pay outright for solar systems, he said, because of the strong private market in the state for renewable-energy credits.

That market is less predictable in Pennsylvania, largely because the legislature has not increased mandates for solar in the state's alternative-energy requirements.

To find out how to participate in the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Pathways to Green Schools webcast on Friday, go to http://go.philly.com/ greenschools EndText

Contact staff writer Diane Mastrull at 215-854-2466 or dmastrull@phillynews.com.