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Solar- powered school solutions

By TRAVIS WEIK - tweik@thecouriertimes.com

While wind worries whirl around Henry County, local educators eye other ways to fuel their buildings and budgets.

A nationwide report on solar power used in K-12 schools found that nearly 5,500 schools in the U.S. have started using solar panels to supplement their regular energy needs.

“Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools, 2nd Edition” found that lower installation costs have encouraged more schools to adopt solar power over the past few year.

Charles A. Beard Memorial School Corporation Superintendent Jediah Behny said solar panels can help increase the efficiency of schools.

“This is an option that we have explored on a number of different times, along with many others,” Behny said.

He thinks there has been a recent uptick of Indiana schools installing solar panels because upcoming changes in state law will take away some incentives.

Senate Enrolled Act 309, for example, will take away “net metering,” the ability for solar panel owners to get credit on their electric bills by generating more power than they need and selling it back to the utility company.

“When net metering can be utilized for schools, the initial investment towards moving towards solar looks much more positive than without it,” Behny said.

Working together

Community partnerships have also helped spur solar adoption.

Henry County REMC, for example, installed eight solar panels on the roof of Tri High School within the past five years at no cost to the South Henry School Corporation.

Superintendent Wes Hammond said the solar panels heat all of the hot water for Tri High and Tri Elementary School.

South Henry doesn’t track how much electricity the panels generate, so Hammond couldn’t comment on specific savings the district might realize from using them.

Blue River Schools have also talked with REMC about using solar panels to help save energy costs, BRV Superintendent Eric Creviston said.

“It is still something we would like to do, but we’ve had a lot of other pretty critical capital projects that we’ve needed to do first,” Creviston said.

Creviston said energy costs are the number one expense at Blue River after wages and salaries.

“We do a lot to conserve energy,” Creviston said.

By adding capacitors in both school buildings, BRV has been able to even out power factor costs.

They also added new compressors at the waste water treatment plant, Creviston said.

Blue River science teacher Ben Beuhler did a project with students a few years ago to put high-efficiency lights in the high school main gym.

This year, BRV upgraded the lights in the auxiliary gym as well.

Creviston said Blue River Elementary School is next in line to get more energy-efficient lighting.

The northern Henry County district also upgraded its original heating and air conditioning units in the elementary gym with new components.

Creviston explained that the environmental systems are computer-controlled to manage heat and air conditioning to match times of student occupancy.

Alternative alternatives

As Blue River showed, solar panels are not the only way that schools can potentially save money on their light bills.

Shenandoah School Corporation has not considered solar as a source of supplemental energy.

They have, however, installed have a wind turbine, a geo thermal field and updated, energy-saving appliances in the buildings over recent years.

“Our wind turbine has substantially decreased our utility costs, which in turn along with other cost savings methods, has allowed SSC to create several full-time teaching positions,” said SSC Business Manager Julia Miller. “These additional positions at the high school include an additional math teacher, and a business education teacher, as well as a computer technology teacher at our elementary school.”

Shenandoah uses a 50-well closed-loop geo-thermal field to support heating and cooling needs at the elementary school. 

Miller said Shenandoah School Corporation is now using energy-efficient boilers at both the middle school and high school, with updated water heaters in all the buildings.

The SSC summer building project included a full cafeteria kitchen renovation that uses the most energy efficient equipment available, Miller said.

Shenandoah also added interior and exterior LED lighting, which uses less electricity than fluorescent or incandescent bulbs.

LED lights also allow for automated motion-activated lighting in common areas, meaning no one will accidentally leave a light on at Shenandoah High School over winter break and run up the electric bill.

Miller noted that the new LED lighting brings an added benefit of helping with campus security and picture clarity on the school surveillance cameras.

“While we always investigate viable alternatives so that we are using our resources wisely, we have not yet researched solar,” Miller said, “and because of that we are uncertain whether we have sufficient land, or roof space, for a solar project.”

Use less, pay less

Instead of adding more fuel to the fire, New Castle decided to focus their efforts on reducing their overall energy usage.

The energy reduction program that Cinergistic implemented at New Castle has saved the schools and taxpayers $6 million in gas and electric costs since 2010, NCCSC Energy Specialist Dave Pryor reported in November.

NCCSC Assistant Superintendent Bo Pheffer said space is another concern when talking about going solar.

“If we wanted to place solar panels on school property, we most likely would need to use part of our playgrounds,” Pheffer said. “Additionally, I would have concerns about using school roofs for solar panels.”

Nettle Creek School Corporation in Hagerstown uses LED lighting and updated temperature controls to help save money on utility costs.

“Along with saving money, our climate controls project has made controlling classroom temperatures more precise resulting in more comfortable classrooms for staff and students,” NCSC Superintendent Dr. William Doering said.

All the lighting at the athletic building has been converted to LED. It is also now heated by natural gas, rather than electricity.

“These changes have significantly reduced the energy this facility requires during athletic seasons when it is used heavily, as well as during the off-season when the building is not in use,” Doering said.

Hagerstown Jr. Sr. High School teacher Nathan Williamson has a class specifically about Alternative Energy. The curriculum includes a current, local look at the possible benefits of harnessing solar energy.

Doering said Williamson’s students will construct project as part of the class to demonstrate what savings alternative energy sources can provide.

New Castle Community School Corporation has had conversations over the years about using solar and wind power to help reduce electrical expenses.