What is a solar school project?
Solar panels are connected to the school to generate electricity for the school to use. These panels, called photovoltaic or PV panels, basically work like a solar calculator. Our standard model is a 1kW PV system, which is about 10’ x 10’ or 100 square feet. A typical home would have 3-5 of these systems, and a business could have 100 or more. There is no water being heated (that’s solar thermal hot water) and the panels do not reach extreme temperatures as they have natural ventilation underneath. We have many different names for these solar school projects depending on the school and organizations involved. Since the panels are used to help teach kids about energy and solar energy in particular as well as to provide electricity to the school, we sometimes call these projects “Learning from Light” or “Solar Schools.” American Electric Power, an electric utility involved in many of these projects, created the “Learning from Light” name and Pacific Gas & Electric uses the “Solar Schools” name for their projects.
Will these panels supply all of the electricity for the school building?
No. Our goal is to provide educational tools for the teachers to use in helping students understand energy and especially solar energy. The electricity consumed by the average school varies quite a bit—it can range from 30kW up to 1MW or more. The electricity is free, but it is only a small percentage of the overall electricity being consumed by the building. We hope that students, teachers, parents and community members ask where the rest of their energy comes from, and looks for ways to do more solar projects and make their schools, homes, businesses more energy efficient.
Why should a school do this?
The school gets free electricity and one of the latest, most high tech teaching tools available in the country. The school also gets educational support materials to help improve student science and math test scores. There is basically little cost to the school and the community gets to participate in the project. Various utilities, the business community, the US Department of Energy, most State Energy Offices, and the environmental community support these projects. There are benefits for the entire school staff as well as the students. It is a way to bring the outside world of business into the classroom and teach social responsibility at the same time. It is a fantastic opportunity for kids to learn about energy, teachers to learn about the latest teaching materials, and the school to lead the community into the future. These projects also help attract businesses looking for communities having innovative schools for the children of their employees.
Does the electricity go to a particular room or to power a particular device?
No. The electricity goes into the building in the same way the electricity comes in from the electric utility. The electricity from the solar panel simply becomes part of the overall power for the building. It is like rain on a lake. The rain may cause water to flow over the dam, but it is impossible to separate the new rain from the existing lake water.
Why do we generally put the panels on poles on the ground beside the school instead of the roof?
Our goal for this project is to teach everyone that solar electricity can be generated anywhere you need it. We put the panels on poles on the ground so everyone can see the panels working. If we put them on the roof, everyone will forget they are there. The students get data collection systems so they can monitor the electricity being generated, but we believe it is important to see the panels working every day — safely in the school yard.
Who insures it? Who maintains it? What if it stops working? Is a fence required? Are batteries needed?
Once it is installed, the solar electricity system becomes another part of the school that would be covered by the school district’s insurance policy as any other item on school grounds. There are warranties on different parts of the system depending on which manufacturer you select for your system. There is really not much maintenance, but we explain to the facilities staff what to do in case of a problem. Since the percentage of electricity generated from the system is small and the school remains tied to the utility power grid, there is no impact if the panels would stop producing electricity for some reason (as they do at night anyway when there is no sun). The solar power system can be fenced for security against damage, but this is not required. Batteries can be connected to the solar panels for the system to act as a source of backup power for the school, but we do not recommend it due to the added cost. The project is designed to help teach students about energy and solar electricity and not to act as backup power when the school day is over.