Catholic schools benefit from solar energy education program

Lisa Johnston | lisajohnston@archstl.org

More than a dozen wide-eyed seniors at St. Joseph's Academy recently climbed onto the top of the school roof to look at the latest addition to the school -- a sea of almost 100 solar panels, basking in the warmth of the sunny afternoon. It was the first time they got to climb atop the roof, but it was all in the name of education.

The private, all-girls Catholic school in Frontenac was among the first to sign up for BrighterSchools, a solar education program for Missouri schools. Brightergy, a Missouri-based company with offices in St. Louis and Kansas City, started the program in 2012. Brightergy worked with the EarthWays Center at the Missouri Botanical Garden to develop the classroom component of the program.

About 160,000 students in 75 districts, individual schools and two universities participate in the program, according to Cindy Bambini, director of business development for Brightergy and an alumna of St. Joseph's Academy. Almost two dozen Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of St. Louis have signed up for the program.

"The biggest reason is when you get to doing this with a school, and really with anybody in Missouri, is that solar is a mystery," said Bambini. "People don't really understand it, but the technology has been around a long time. The idea is we can take this mysterious solar power and make it into something that is understandable and ordinary."

St. Joseph's students meticulously measured the surface area of each panel as a part of a lesson on how energy is generated from light. Bambini explained to the group that the array will generate enough energy to power about three-and-a-half homes a year.

Several feet below them, inside the building, three inverters perched alongside a wall displayed of the amount of energy those panels were generating. And a few floors down from that, the advanced physics students' classroom had become a hub of information, where they learned how the panels have produced energy and cost savings for the school.

"Anytime the girls get to measure, quantify and analyze it, it helps so much with their understanding and brings all of the variables together," said physics teacher Julie Haddock. Students learned that in January and February of this year, the school did not achieve the expected value of energy production, which is based on a national average. But that was expected, said Haddock, given the winter weather.

The education program has been bolstered through a rebate offered by Ameren Missouri, in which Ameren customers were able to receive a rebate of $2 per watt for solar generation systems, up to 25,000 watts. The rebate program ended in December, when it reached its cap on funding. Bambini noted that Missouri legislators are considering a bill (SB 857), which would restart the rebate program, and added that numerous schools are currently on a waiting list.

Participating schools enter the program through a lease arrangement with Brightergy. Bambini noted there is no up-front cost, and the monthly lease payment is less than the energy savings. "It's a cash-positive immediately," she said. "In the first month, the cost savings outpaces the lease cost." Each solar array is designed to generate about 33,000 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, which will save the school about $3,000 in electricity costs in the first year. In about 20 years' time, each school will save more than $50,000 per array.

The BrighterSchools program provides eight lessons for students in kindergarten through 12th grades and includes professional development workshops for teachers and service learning projects for older students.

Bambini also noted that the program exposes students to the idea of a future career in solar energy. "Solar employs more people in the country right now than coal," she said. "When you get into solar and how it works, it's a STEM-related discussion (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and we need more -- especially girls -- to be engineers and scientists."

Bambini also said that the program is a perfect fit for Missouri -- which, believe it or not, receives just as much sun as Tampa, Florida, and southern France. "We get about four-and-a-half peak hours of sun a day," meaning the time in which the sun is highest in the sky and generates the most production from the panels, she said. "A lot of people don't realize we get really terrific sun in Missouri."

BrighterSchools

BrighterSchools is a comprehensive solar energy education program for schools in Missouri, developed by Missouri-based energy company Brightergy. The program includes several components, including:

• BrighterClassroom — Eight lessons for students in kindergarten through 12th grades to teach students about solar energy and address energy in all its forms.

• BrighterView — Kiosks that provide visitors to participating schools a visualization of how the solar energy system works, how much energy it produces and and impact of the system on the energy savings and environment.

• BrighterConversation — An online resource for schools to start social media discussions and posts about their solar installations. Individuals can join the discussion at mysolarschool.tumblr.com.

To learn more about the program, visit www.brightergy.com/solar-power/installations-for-schools. 

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