Archive for the 'Perspectives' Category

Solar Energy Blossoming at St. Monica’s

Thursday, August 14th, 2008

Story written by Katie Kizer

One of the most basic relationships in our world is that of a garden and its photosynthetic bond with the sun. Recently, the sun and its blooming kin have taken on an entirely new purpose at St. Monica Academy in Chicago: to power. The Chicago Botanic Garden has joined forces with this flagship school to introduce an initiative to create an entirely green curriculum at St. Monica’s, including a solar installation. St. Monica owes its “Academy” classification to this alliance, as it was awarded by the Archdiocese of Chicago for a “ground-breaking educational initiative,” otherwise known as SEEDS, Student Environmental Education and Development Studies. Developed by the Chicago Botanic Garden and implemented by St. Monica’s, SEEDS is a unique curriculum designed to incorporate “environmental, project-based studies throughout all subjects and grades.” In other words, lesson plans of varying subjects are infused with environmental science and green awareness; a movement that is light-years ahead of its sister schools.

The solar project at St. Monica Academy was also made possible with the assistance of Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, Commonwealth Edison, NEED, and the Foundation for Environmental Education. It is a 1 KW solar PV installation on the roof, and it is used to supplement some of the daily energy use. The bonus of these solar installations is that not only are they providing surrounding communities with a positive example of how to utilize green technologies, but the children within the school are growing up with these lessons about renewable energies. They are able to be a part of something that many grown-ups in our world will never experience: watching the actual process in which a solar photovoltaic array captures sunlight and brings it into the classroom. I am confident that I can speak on behalf of all my 21 year-old peers when I say that this experience is way cooler than any build-it-yourself battery project that we ever conducted in junior high science class.

Solar energy is not the only positive contribution that St. Monica’s has made to our Mother Earth. The school is also actively redesigning much of its campus in more efficient and renewable ways. This includes replacing the black pavement with pervious or high albedo pavement, which will allow for less storm water runoff and air conditioning use. This is because of the lightweight nature of the new pavement and its ability to lower surrounding temperatures. St. Monica also plans to plant an extensive amount of new vegetation on the grounds, everywhere from the play areas to sidewalks and the new “Green Roof” which also reduces storm water runoff and increases insulation of the building. The school will also be constructing two new greenhouses, an urban farm within which the students can interact and participate, a native habitat area where wildlife can flourish and individuals can learn about these processes, and many more exciting developments.

The Chicago Botanic Garden played such a critical role in the “greening” of St. Monica both in regards to the physical campus and in the classroom. In fact, none of this would have been possible without the organization’s contribution. The SEEDS curriculum is revolutionary for a private school such as St. Monica, as it is acting as a pilot school for future possible green schools within the Archdiocese of Chicago. Sophia Siskel, the President and CEO of the Chicago Botanic Garden, hopes that SEEDS “provides inspiration and guidance for schools throughout the Archdiocese and beyond.” Additionally, a woman named Anna Viertel of the Chicago Botanic Garden discusses the benefits of the SEEDS curriculum and accompanying ‘green’ renovations. “Time spent working in the school’s gardens and greenhouses will cultivate practical, vocational skills to enrich students’ lives and the lives of their families and communities. By creating an awareness of the world they will inherit, we are preparing them to succeed in it.”

My experiences in writing stories about these projects always differ depending on the level of excitement on behalf of the people involved. After all, such excitement is contagious when you’re talking about such inventive technology. When I conducted my first interview for this piece with a woman named Elaine Harrison, Director of Communications, I was reminded how important this work truly is. I was moved by Elaine’s incredible passion about her work and the great progress that St. Monica has made. She and the rest of the hardworking faculty at St. Monica have such enthusiasm for making the world a better place that I have walked away with a greater sense of self-efficacy and the confidence that this generation will continue to promote green technology into the future.

A Friend in Need is a Friend Indeed

Wednesday, July 30th, 2008

Story by Alex Kizer, photos courtesy of Sidwell Friends School

dscf0027.JPGIt is nearly impossible to look at the Sidwell Friends Middle School, located in Washington, DC, and not mistake your location for something closer to the Smithsonian. But the Middle School, completed in 2006, would have a tough time finding an appropriate exhibit, even at the Smithsonian’s 19 compounds: it’s not Deco, it is not exactly Contemporary. The building’s structure embodies art in a more utilitarian fashion, bringing together beauty and energy efficiency that is unprecedented and merits an exhibit all by itself.

Enter the Sidwell Friends School: the building was constructed from mostly recycled materials, which is unbelievable considering its modern vibes. The facade, for example, is made from regionally manufactured recycled wine casks.  Walking close to the building I am reminded of a quality last seen from Frank Lloyd Wright. Layered beneath the recycled outer structure is a deep-set wall of windows that provides the school with natural day lighting, which helped the building become the first K-12 school in the United States to have an LEED Platinum rating by the US Green Building Council, in March 2007.


While the aesthetic is pleasing it is all but dwarfed by the Green Building’s capabilities: It uses 60% less energy, thanks to its passive solar design which includes natural shading, day lighting and occupancy sensors and photo sensors. Out of its total water use, only 7% of it comes from DC’s supply, as the Green School treats sewage in their on-site wetlands (yeah, it even has on-site wetlands – see the picture below!); 78% of the building materials were manufactured nearby to minimize energy lost in transportation costs; 5% of electricity is sun-generated; and 60% of the waste generated during construction was diverted from landfills and recycled. Sidwell embodies a splendor that can be appreciated through the eyes as well as through the cerebrum.


To match the school’s physical prowess, Sidwell Friends has a website specially designed for the Green School. It is a multimedia dissection of the building’s many energy efficient components: the biology pond, solar chimneys, reflective roof, and PV panels and vertical solar fins. By clicking on any of the various components, the viewer can listen to students’ testimony and check to see how much output (or input) each faculty is providing.

One of the students, Tony, provides a tutorial on the Low-e windows. He says: “The glass in the low energy windows allows daylight in while deflecting heat. There are actually two panes in each window and in between them there is argon gas, which also helps to deflect heat.”

Felling kind of lost, I had to admit that I had never heard of argon gas before young Tony told me about it. I didn’t know that it is on the periodic table as Ar, and that it has a very low thermal conductivity, which is why it is great for thermal insulation. I understand that Tony was just reading from a script, but still, I felt uneasy that a boy that young knew something that I had never even heard of. Somehow, he was better informed.


When I was walking out of Sidwell, the DC sun was melting into the horizon and painting a golden streak across the face of the School I have since begun to call the “Super School.” I stopped in front of the building, trying to take in all that the Green Middle School has to offer, when I realized that it isn’t the building that is going to save the planet, it is kids like Tony; it is the future generations who are going to take all that Sidwell Middle School has to offer and make our planet a safer and more habitable place. And as long as we’re teaching the Tonys out there the beauty of invention and the importance of looking after the future, then I’ll learn to live with the fact that there are people out there that might know (a little) more than I do.


St. Rita, Progressing into the Future with the Sun as its Guide

Friday, July 25th, 2008

By Katie Kizer, intern at the Foundation for Environmental Education


The saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” may need to be revised to something along the lines of, “If it ain’t broke, that doesn’t mean we can’t make it better” at St. Rita of Cascia High, a college preparatory school for young men located on Chicago’s South Side. The school has been actively working towards advancing its technology within classrooms.  They are working to create a state of the art science wing which will allow for more fruitful learning, including the incorporation of solar PV panels.  A project to install a 1 kW system at St. Rita was recently completed and will allow for faculty members such as Sue Krystof to design classroom lessons around observation of the solar collectors and data collection.  She teaches courses ranging from AP Chemistry to both regular and Honors Physics.  Sue explains how she is going to have her class “hook up to get data so we could measure temperature changes and to monitor the efficiency of the solar collectors.  Then each class would take a week to collect the data.”  It is an exciting development when a science class can not only witness such advanced technology, but interact and learn from it.

Assistant Principal Joe Partacz comments about the school’s outlook on modernization and the motivations behind the solar project. “We at St. Rita feel that we have to stay ahead of the curve technologically in order to give our students the best education possible.  Our faculty is excited about the new beginnings in our science department and we look forward to using the panels this coming school year.”  This mentality fits in nicely with the goal of preparing these young men for higher learning.  The school prides itself on the fact that “students placed in the Academic Program receive the highest quality college preparatory curriculum offered by any high school.”  Additionally, the school has an honors program option for exceptional students who also absorb the benefits of this fine education.  The solar installation has added another dimension to this advanced educational facility.


In addition to the solar PV panels, Assistant Principal Partacz discusses how St. Rita has been “totally gutting out and remodeling our Chemistry labs to make them more state of the art. The new labs with the addition of the solar panels will give our students a better understanding in the field of science.”  All of these changes have resulted in turning a new page in regards to educating the young men about science, an exciting development for the staff at St. Rita High.

We live in a country where our school systems are not standardized, and often our children do not experience new-age technology such as solar installations, so this project is a unique opportunity for the students.  My hope is that when they graduate and move on to their next chapter, they take with them the lessons they have explicitly learned through these science classes and other subjects.  Aside from the ins and outs of energy efficiency, these kids should take with them the knowledge that not all students in the United States are able to learn in such a state-of-the-art environment.  Alumni of St. Rita can one day fight for the opportunity for all children to filter into schools with better resources.  The solar PV panels at St. Rita High are more than a simple modernization tactic: they represent a beacon of awareness for future projects.  We must scoop up both under-funded private schools and the public school districts which fall through the cracks of lower-income neighborhoods and find a way for all children to learn about going green.  St. Rita’s project allows us to stop and remember those who are less fortunate and take it upon the bright and eager young ones of this south side Chicago school to bring all American schools into the new age.


Paradise: Not Always What The Name Implies…

Thursday, July 17th, 2008

Story and photos from Greg Holman

humbolt-fire-ap-pic.jpg As many people on the west coast are living in  the smoke of hundreds (down from thousands) of lightning fires, it would be logical to do a story about the only regular maintenance involved in owning a solar system – periodically cleaning the panels. However, this is about something much different. With the instantaneous distribution of information, news, video and images, we are becoming a country – no, a world of desensitized individuals. 10,000 perish in an earthquake in the Middle East, millions of people displaced because of a hydroelectric project in China, and the list goes on. So, when more than 80 homes burned in the wind-driven “Humboldt” wildfire in Paradise, California, it was “section B” news for many people.


For residents living in and around the town of Paradise, this was reality. Thousands of people were displaced, most temporarily. Others were displaced from their homes forever. Somehow, this is amplified when it is realized that 7 of the people who lost everything were my former students.

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The PG&E Solar Schools program began in 2004. Who knew that it would grow to the large community of schools, non-profits, and people passionate about the program. Before the fire was even out, there had been several teachers throughout the state, officials from the Solar Schools Program, NEED, and the Foundation for Environmental Education calling and emailing to see if their school in Paradise was alright. Stay tuned for an article on what is being done for those students who lost their homes.


When something of such large scale hits so close to home, you realize how little we need to get by. Quickly, you see just how much we do each day is an “extra” and non-essential to go through life. Many of the people most affected are the ones with such a positive outlook – ready to rebuild and move on. Looking at my family and house still standing, I realize that so many things that we plug in are just luxuries.

As I am writing this, a three-week siege of lightning fires are slowly coming under control all over California, and again in the Paradise area. 50 more homes were lost in the region to these fires. Over 10,000 people are being allowed back into their homes as evacuation orders are being lifted. The governor twice, and tomorrow the President, will be in the area to assess the damage and plan for recovery.

If the second round of fires were not bad enough, today it was announced that the first fire has been deemed arson.

Lets focus on what we can control. First, get out and give your solar panels a good cleaning. Squeeze out every extra free watt you can by using “soft” water and a squeegee. Next, try to volunteer in your area in any capacity that you can for emergency preparedness. Donations of used clothing and goods to non-profits, financial donations, or volunteering for a number of local organizations can be ways to help!

Anyone interested in helping is encouraged to donate to their local chapter of the American Red Cross, or for people specifically in Paradise: the American Red Cross or the Paradise Community Foundation (

Dead Bat Mate, Solar, and…Argentinian Energy Seeds

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

How often do you get to put Dead Bat Mate, and solar in the same sentence?  We hope we have your interest perked…we want to share a perspective on a project we are just beginning.


This project has different partners and finds us working with an entirely new group of people from Ohio to rural Argentina and the projects are unlike anything that you might see in the United States.  After all, while Argentina is in the same hemisphere as the United States, it is south of the equator.

Most of our blog stories are about completed solar projects on schools and other kinds of public buildings inside the United States, but Argentina is different in so many ways even our blog stories will be different.   We thought you might need blog stories that would provide you with some insights into the background of this part of the world.  This is rural Argentina.  This is not Buenos Aires.  Some background on rural Argentina is important.

Below are two stories that will help you understand the location for projects that are in their early phases.  They were both written by Beatrice de Courtivron.  Her organization is MotoMedics International.

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We felt it was important for you to read two stories because the first is a little bit funny and the second is very sad.  This part of the world is inhabited by fantastic people who enjoy life, but who face indescribable hardships so their lives are often funny and sometime very sad.  The two stories seem to convey both emotions so we are choosing to give you both.  In the next few months, we will give you more stories about our partnership with MotoMedics and the people of rural Argentina.  If you want to look this area up on a map, look for Santiago del Estero, Argentina.  The second story took place in Majadas, Argentina.

And so none of you ask “where are the solar panels?” here is a picture of an installer explaining what is going to happen when the sun hits the panel and electricity is created…in Santiago Del Estero, Argentina.


But before we show you more pictures and tell you stories about solar panels on schools in Argentina, it is important for you to learn a little bit more about this country.

Story One: Dead Bat Mate

Argentines love their mate. Its more than an herb infused drink; it’s hospitality, a ritual, socializing. Everyone drinks from the same straw, they pass the cup around. No one worries about each other’s germs. I happen to like it very much. Although I prefer it unsweetened, sweet is fine too. Argentines seem to like everything sweet so it is easier for me to drink it whatever way they do.


In Burro Pozo, during a lull before lunch, the mate comes out. The woman prepares the cup. First the mate leaves go in then the hot water. Everyone takes it in turn then passes it around. The water is continually added between drinkers. As there is no electricity here, water is kept hot by placing the kettle on burning pieces of wood on a piece of metal that they carry around with them. When the leaves need to be changed, they put fresh mate in, add the hot water and pass it around. I enjoy this ritual; the easy socializing with our hosts.  I knew the minute we arrived at this rancho and saw a goat skin drying in the sun that we would have cabrito today. I watch the grandmother and a daughter cut and grill the pieces while I sit under the outdoor kitchen’s thatched roof and sip the mate.

Our team has divided into 2 shifts for lunch so at least one team is always working. Gerardo arrives from the small community/health center and joins us. After lunch while we walk back to the community center, he tells me about the well this community uses. It’s more of a water filled underground cave about a kilometer away and it is the only source of water for this little community. It was also home to the area bats. One of the men a while back decided it would be a good idea to smoke the bats out of the cave to keep their guano from falling into the water. So during the day, while the bats slept, they threw a bunch of burning torches into the hole, covered it up so the bats couldn’t escape and waited to rid the water of the bat guano problem. But since the bats couldn’t get out with the hole covered, they were smoked to death and fell into the water. There was no way to remove all the dead bats from the cave so there they remained. Dead Bat Water.

I look at him for a minute while my brain registers the implications and kicked into very high gear. My first desperate thought: O my God, I’ve been drinking dead bat mate. My second desperate but somewhat hopeful thought: it is made with hot water and please God help me that it was boiled for days for the constant mate drinking and had some semblance of sterility.

I waited for a couple of hours for the poisonous effects of dead bat mate to wrack my body. I pray not to get sick; I decide that if I am spared illness, I will never ever drink anything boiled or otherwise without casually inquiring about what could be in the water first. But nothing happened. I have always liked bats and found them interesting. Now I wonder if I don’t carry some part of the cute little critters around in me.


Story Two: A Little Boy

photo5.jpgWhen we arrive at the clinic in Majadas, people are already lined up. The waiting room quickly fills up. I am taken aback by all the sick children. There is a Down’s baby who is 2 or 3 times the size of a normal baby his age. His mother smiles at me as he lies in her lap.

Both doctors start treating immediately. Graciela, a doctor from Santiago del Estero, is doing pediatrics. She quickly becomes overwhelmed. There are so many sick and not enough drugs. Many have bronchitis and asthma, there is so much dust. The antibiotics and inhalers go fast and she must resort to using the one remaining inhaler for several children to alleviate their symptoms. All the children have parasites; the drugs are gone in no time. There is simply not enough. The nearest city is hours away; there is no way to get any more and she must do what she can.

This is the second day that we are using the portable EKG that MMI has purchased and donated to Pilotos. I am learning to attach the leads and run the test. Mirtha, the cardiologist, is doing brief physicals and I do the EKGs when she asks me. There are several Chagasic patients, one with advanced TB, who come through. We’ve been working for several hours when Graciela asks Mirtha to help examine one of the children. He has been fainting and turning blue. He is brought into the room where I am for an EKG. He is 3 years old. He can’t lie down because he faints so we do the test with him sitting up. He faints when he cries so we give him cookies while we attach the leads and try to do the test. He is so little, the leads keep falling off his chest. He looks down at the wires and starts crying; we all talk to him and give him another cookie. We have to hold the leads in place. There are 3 of us who do this; I am holding the last 3 against his chest. We do manage to get a reading. He has Chagas disease and his heart is severely damaged. Both doctors speak with his mother. He must be taken to the hospital in Santiago or he will die. She is barely 20 yrs old, she has two older children and is pregnant with her fourth child, her husband works away from the rancho. He brings money when he visits his family. Essentially she is alone. She does not have the money for the bus trip into the city, who will take care of her other children and her animals? It’s a death sentence for this little boy.

I am so distraught after his mother takes him from the room that I have to be alone. People who know me know that I always have something to say. But I am speechless; without words. I go outside for a walk. It’s hot and brilliantly sunny. The sky is a cloudless blue. There is no sign of the torrential rains 2 days prior. The ground is as cracked and parched as ever. The cacti are blooming. I really need a distraction so I start taking photographs of the flowers. There are scorpions and poisonous snakes here. People die of snakebite and I am terrified of snakes. But I am so focused on my flowers that I don’t even think about them.  I am busy with my camera when Gerardo comes looking for me. I struggle trying to explain. I just have no words. He knows this forest with its seemingly insurmountable problems so well. There are thousands of such children in Argentina. Millions in Central and South America. They expect to die young; they know that not all of their children may survive. They all need help and that is why we are here. To help, to make a difference.

I know this intellectually but it was my hands holding the leads on this little boy’s chest. I felt his ribcage expand with his breathing. I felt the panic to stop him from crying less he faint. It is very personal to me. I talk about my own 2 sons. They are sick, I go to the doctor’s. They need meds, I buy them. Here, there is nothing. A few drugs, some supplies on a metal shelf. I feel completely impotent, walking in this forest, under the relentless bright sun, the cactus flowers.

We walk down the path on the way back to the clinic. I see the little boy and his mother leaving. He is sitting in the basket attached to her bicycle’s handlebars. He is wrapped in a towel. He reminds of me of E.T. as I watch them head down the dirt road on their way back to their rancho. He glances at me from under his towel as they pass by. I don’t even know his name.

Chico’s  flower

For more information about Beatrice’s program:

Explore Your Independence

Friday, July 4th, 2008



Story and photos provided by Alyssa Newman


In the United States, today, it’s Independence Day.  Tomorrow it’s Independence Day in Venezuela.  Various countries have been declaring and celebrating the many forms of independence since at least the 1300’s.  I get a little nostalgic on such holidays.  Sure – it’s great to have an extra day to spend with family and friends, and I’ve shared many a watermelon and BBQ over the years…culminating in an over-the-top display of fire and lights put to some interpretive soundtrack.  I think it’s also important to give at least a small shout out and moment of thoughtful pause to the reason for the day…and remember what independence is all about…the first significance of the day… and reinterpret the day for the present…and explore our unique independence a bit.  Inspiration comes from many sources.




About a month ago, I took a trip through the desert and had my own independent epiphanies.   Most of us learned in school that Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492 – his own mission of independence and exploration, and he “discovered” America…conventional wisdom said the world was flat, but he sailed to prove them wrong.  Ironically, today we live in a world where many new authors say the world is flat once more.  Columbus landed on the Bahamas (thinking he was in Asia), and thought he saw Indians.  The Indians he saw were what we learned were the true first inhabitants of the land, and they lived there quite sustainably on the land until some of our ancestors decided they had a piece of paper that said they owned the land.


People had actually been living there for thousands of years…in some land we’d now find quite inhospitable, generations thrived…and later disappeared.


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Montezuma’s Castle




Sedona, AZ – view near the end of a vortex scavenger hunt.


My friends would probably say that I spend far too much time thinking about energy independence (they tell me that when I’m going on and on about solar energy).  The many energy seeds stories we try to tell are all about independent actions and thinking catalyzing change.  Independence is a goal and a journey…relevant to every individual around the world.   Sometimes it takes a little oil to explore, but eventually we can and will live in a world with much less oil. What role will each of us play in that new world?





Areas that were once a jungle may somehow wind up in a painted desert.








Areas that are now desert, may be oceans once more.







Rt. 66 is now many highways, and new roads and modes of transport will connect us in the future.











Who will be around in the future to tell these stories?

We drove over 2,000 miles with a fuel cost over $600.  I bought 1.79 tons of CO2 offsets from Native Energy to support Remooable Energy projects at a cost of a mere $24…truth be told, I still do and should feel guilty about driving…but that won’t stop me from exploring.  Sometimes you have to see the things you want to protect and learn from firsthand – wikipedia is nice as are the NPS websites, but they don’t impart the beauty…the snow, wind, rain and 50+ mph gusting winds…all that can and does occur on the trail.  On this July 4th, I encourage you to get out and explore your independence, be mindful of your carbon footprint, and tell your story.  Oh, and don’t forget to surge the sun!