California Teacher Sheds Light On Solar In Germany

Let us introduce you to an energetic, hands-on science and gardening teacher from Oakland, California. Sue Morgan has taught elementary science for fifteen years. At Sequoia and Glenview Elementary, Mrs. Morgan emphasizes a responsible energy future to the adults of tomorrow. As a PG&E solar school teacher, a member of the NEED/ PG&E California Teacher Advisory Board, and recently a Fund for Teachers recipient, Sue has a solid background on the topic of solar. Here is what she submitted about her recent trip to learn about solar in Germany:

I was the proud recipient of a grant from the Fund For Teachers (which has funding for K-12 teachers, within specific urban areas of the US, to go on summer education trips – www.fundforteacher.org). As the Science teacher at Glenview Elementary School, the first PG&E Solar School in Oakland California, I was interested in researching and observing first-hand the major solar electric installations that have gone up in Germany over the past few years. Germany has distanced itself from all other countries in the world in committing and following through on alternative forms of electricity production. I took advantage of my fellowship to visit, in person, four of the largest PV Solar Parks in the world, all of which are located in Germany. Germany’s increase in solar electric installations is quite impressive: 2003, 145MW; 2006, 968MW. An increase of over 600% in 3 years! An astounding 40+ percent is in residential power!

For my fellowship, I chose to also attend the Intersolar. The intersolar is an international conference and trade show to spotlight solar electric designs and innovations which has been held in Freiburg, Germany for the past 6 or 7 years. Having lived in Germany after graduating from college oh so many years ago, I did have to do some pretrip refresher sessions on my German language abilities. In attending the Intersolar 2007 I found it amazing, overwhelming and a bit disjointed for someone from the under-funded education and nonprofit world. But once I got past the costs involved in the exhibitors’ stalls and booths (multiple flat screens for viewing, couches, tables, chairs, the plethora of give aways; pens, pencils, canvas bags, flyers, Frisbees) and got focused on what some of the new technologies are and I was impressed: Solar glass handling much of the power needs on a skyscraper floor; rolled out solar sheets which are less bulky and labor intensive to install on roofs; solar imbedded in roofing materials. There was a lot of solar electric for heating. All of these were being done in many areas of Europe and Asia.

After the three day conference we set off in search of some of the largest solar electric installations in the world. It was inspiring to actually see these PV Solar Parks in situ, knowing that they were producing 5-12 megawatts of power (enough to power 1700-4000 households) and emitting NO greenhouse gases. Just observing the ‘Potential Possibles’ made me feel simply elated. That a promised innovative technology- capable of producing what we all need without present pollution or never-ending toxic waste- has been given an arena to prove itself, is indeed a reality suffused with hope.

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Solarpark Pocking… 10MW powering 3500 households, also allowing sheep to continue grazing.

In 2006 alone, Germany installed over 960 MW of electricity. These installations included residential and commercial in large and small spaces. Installations that I visited were located in rural areas not far from major cities, but actually situated on the outskirts of small villages. Many residents were aware of their hidden power plants, but in one case when we were ever so close, I jumped out of the car to ask fine tune directions from a fire fighter and discovered he knew nothing one of the world’s largest solar electric plant no more than 2 miles from his firehouse. Then again, he may not have been from the community… but from a larger city.

All but one of the solar parks were experiencing rain on the day we found ourselves visiting and 3 of the 4 had sheep and/or goats that were grazing on grass growing underneath the panels. None of the parks were far from residential areas so there was little loss of power in transport. Most of the Solarparks were really not part of the visual landscape and only one had signage to let you know you were getting close. These parks were not easy to find, meaning they were not on major motorways. Back roads and small communities are where these parks are found amid rolling fields of grapes, wheat or just plain grazing land.

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Sheep sharing the Gut Erlasee field with 12MW of solar power.

I am more convinced than ever that solar can truly be a part of our future electric needs. Since all of the large solar parks are on farm land, it seems as though they have one field for wheat, another for corn and then one for panels which power the area. If they can power 1500-4000 households, that is a lot of power for a field to produce. Yes, they still need to grow food. Hopefully, those in charge will make sure the money does not become the sole reason for solar decision making. It’s that moderation, that balance, that we must strive for instead of profits over people and the planet. Yes, there is another way to look at what makes a community strong and healthy and how we choose to live.

As a science teacher, this fellowship allowed me to see first hand the size and impact these large installations are having. I have seen the panels near the Mojave Desert here in California, whose landscape calls for more solar, but these areas in Germany are part of farmland, rolling hillsides. The weather in mid-late June was overcast with daily bouts of thunderstorms and lots of rain… for perhaps an hour or so followed by sunny skies again. My assumption is that if they are actually producing enough electricity with that kind of weather, we in California should certainly get moving on installing as much solar electric as we can (and with our Solar Initiative 2006 we are)!

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Solarpark Muehlhausen Germany 6.3MW powering 2025 households.

I read recently that California is on pace in 2007 to install more solar electric than all California installations in the previous 30 years. So, it does seem as though we are waking up and committing to a future with a future. I have also recently read an op ed piece that touted nuclear energy as the ‘greenhouse gas free’ alternative energy source that will help slow climate change. There was no mention of the pesky toxic, and when we are talking nuclear toxic, we are talking life toxicity for THOUSANDS of years. This is toxic residue that no one in 50 years has figured out how to deal with in a competent way and for good reason. So NUCLEAR to me is a dirty, pardon the pun, secret that has no viability in our future. I think it is irresponsible of politicians and business people to discuss it as something that might have a future.. purely because they might be able to make a better profit on it. Yes, solar is still expensive, but thousands of years of toxicity will be pretty expensive itself and it’s not as though we do not have alternatives to try out with serious financial backing first. Germany provides the real-time now example of one way to attempt this experiment.

As a teacher, I feel it is important for me to inspire my students to push for a solar future, for these children will be paying their own electric bills before we know it. Sharing with the students, their parents and the community at large, my first hand experience of massive solar that works, may just help educate a larger percentage of the Dimond and Glenview Communities on how viable solar really is. If it can happen in Germany in such numbers, it can certainly happen here.

Sue Morgan Glenview Elementary, Oakland CA.

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