Over a three-week period this summer, Marblehead’s Tower School carried out part of its environmental stewardship goals by installing rooftop solar panels, a project three years in the making.
Through a generous donation by a member of the school’s board of trustees, the independent pre-kindergarten-through-eighth-grade school has acquired 105 solar panels, which now grace the school’s rooftop. The panels will generate renewable energy for the school and, during the academic year, complement teachers’ lessons in the classroom.
“We are pleased to set an example for our students and for the community through the installation of the solar array,” Head of School Peter Philip said. “We are eager to witness how our teachers and their students weave this commitment to renewable energy into the curriculum.”
When asked just how the solar panels will produce energy at Tower School, Larry Lessard, president and founder of Achieve Renewable Energy LLC, the Beverly-based company that installed the school’s panels, said it involves quantum mechanics and heavy physics. He offered up the layman’s version.
“The models are made out of polycrystalline silicium that is specially designed so that when a photon of light hits it an electron can be, for the lack of a more artistic word, knocked loose and then collected,” said Lessard.
Those collected electrons are sent to an electric conduit that is connected to the school’s power system, he explained.
“So a percentage of light that hits the panels is able to be converted to electricity,” said Lessard.
With today’s solar modules, “conversion efficiency is 15 percent to 20 percent of the light that hits the panels gets turned into electricity,” he added.
The more solar modules, or panels, the more electricity produced. Tower School’s 105 solar modules will generate 28,000 kilowatt hours of carbon-free, renewable power every year, or 15 percent of the school’s entire power usage.
Lessard added that the solar panel’s energy production is not unlike the process plants use to produce their own food.
“Photosynthesis has a percent efficiency that’s not a whole lot different,” said Lessard, laughing. “If I remember from my high school biology class, it hasn’t changed much.”
When students learn about photosynthesis in Tower science teacher Russ Wells’ class, he will relate the similarities between how solar panels produce energy and how plants capture light to produce their own food.
“We teach the process of photosynthesis every year; now we have the opportunity to talk about that in the context of biomicry, where sunlight is being converted into renewable energy,” Wells said. “It’s a great way for our students to see that happen at our school in real time.”
By “real time,” Wells is referring to the final phase of the school’s solar project, in which an electronic monitoring station will be installed in the school’s science lobby, so that students can witness the amount of energy the panels produce on a daily basis.
“When students are able to actually see and experience how energy is being produced by the sun, through tracking something as simple as how the weather impacts the amount of energy produced over a period of time and to relate that energy use, [which] they can see in our building, then you have a lesson that students are a part of — a lesson that enhances learning,” said Deb Eames, Tower Lower School science teacher.
The acquisition of solar panels sets Tower School a part from other independent schools of its size, according to school officials.
“For a school of our size, we’re enterprising,” said Dean Sidell, Tower’s business manager. “There aren’t a lot of small elementary schools that are doing major solar installation, [yet] there are schools that are obviously doing some really good things as it relates to sustainable energy, whether it’s geothermal or wind.”
While the panels may be the newest addition to the school, officials say the school has had a commitment to environmental stewardship for years. Tower’s active, student-led environmental committee has headed up recycling efforts at the school, started a yearly electronic recycling effort open to the community and placed signs on all the school’s computers’ desktops to remind people to shut them down, among other environmentally conscious projects.
“Part of our learning process is building habits that will go with the kids, whether they’re study skills that they take on to high school or organizational skills they take on to high school and even their next job, but it’s also habits of world views,” Sidell said.
He added that extending the school’s environmental goals to everything from buying environmentally friendly cleaning products to installing solar panels gets students to adopt positive, habitual action. But like all learning, reflection is key, he said.
“What do I think about energy, where does it comes from, how does it affect the planet I live on, and is it my problem or somebody else’s problem?” said Sidell. “Those are the kinds of issues that we try to get kids to grapple with.”
Source: Wicked Local Marblehead