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Jun 162010
 

By Autumn Rhea Carpenter
Green Right Now

While many high school science students labor over the usual time-tested science projects, dissecting frogs or building toothpick bridges, a group of Houston students will soon get a cross-curriculum education in cutting-edge solar technologies.

Students in Pasadena, Texas see an example of a solar panel like the ones that will help power their school (Photo: HARC)

Dr. Rich Haut, left, talks with Sam Rayburn students Christian Mares, (yellow shirt), and Ezequiel Calderon, (purple shirt) about the Moser Baer Solar Panel.

These students, at Sam Rayburn High School and South Houston High School, will be participating in a special program in which their schools will get solar rooftop arrays. The solar installations at SRHS and SHHS are part of a joint program by East Harris County Solar Pilot Program, and are expected to save the school districts about $15,000 annually in energy usage.

It will be one of the largest solar installations for a public school system in Texas.

But just as important, the solar project will serve as a laboratory for students from many disciplines.

“U.S. history classes can study our historical development of alternative energy sources, and government classes can study current legislation regarding sustainable energy,” said Grace Blasingame, Sam Rayburn High School science department chair who lead this initiative.

“Math classes will calculate the approximate expected output from each type of panel and produce graphs showing the change in our electric consumption by conventional energy sources. English students will read non-fiction about alternative energy and write essays about the experience. Our video tech classes will interview contractors, installers and project managers, document the construction and report the progress via our live daily newscast. The possibilities are endless.”

In a partnership between Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) and Pasadena Independent School District, (PISD ) three solar technologies will be used to convert sunlight directly into electricity.

Experimenting with Solar

Since the installation will serve as a test station, it will sample three different types of solar technologies that will generate approximately 145 total kilowatts (kW) of energy. The panels will be placed on roofs and window awnings throughout both campuses. The three types:

  • Moser Baer multi-crystalline – the most common type of solar cell which can be rectangular, filling all of the available surface without the gaps left by round or octagonal cells used  in some single crystal panels.
  • Sharp thin-film – requires less raw silicon material than the crystalline panel, takes less production time and generates greater amounts of power in geographic areas with high temperatures. This solar technology also allows natural light to shine through and panels that generate electricity during the day and provide illumination at night.
  • Solyndra® cylindrical panel – performs best when mounted horizontally and packed closely together, covering more of the roof area and producing more electricity per rooftop than a conventional panel.
Solyndra Solar Panel

Solyndra Solar Panel (Photo: HARC)

“The Solyndra® cylindrical technology is brand new, never been deployed in Houston,” said Dr. Rich Haut, senior research scientist at HARC. “It also offers 360-degree penetration, instead of only one angle. Its shape allows air to travel throughout the tube, causing less wind resistance. Given Houston’s propensity to hurricanes, this could be a very useful technology.”

“Each of these solar technologies perform differently depending on wind velocity, direct sunlight and placement,” said Haut. “We’ll learn much more about solar power by using all three of these types of panels.”

Educational Opportunities

The East Harris County Solar Pilot Program will include all students from many disciplines. “SRHS and SHHS students will use real-life applications on how solar energy can lower our carbon footprint by 124 metric tons of CO2 equivalent with clean energy production,” said Blasingame.

This program is just one of a growing number of solar school projects being announced across the country. According to The Solar Electric Power Association, encouraging states to bring solar to schools is an important first step to increasing the use of solar energy in the community at large.

The Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE) heads up the Solar School Initiative, which encourages school systems to use solar installations as a teaching tool. According to FEE, the initiative has spread to schools in Illinois, Ohio, California, New Jersey, North Carolina, Arkansas, Arizona, Texas, Vermont, New Mexico, Rhode Island, New York, Colorado, Louisiana, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Virginia and Wisconsin.

The Irvine Unified School District (IUSD) in California will soon be  installing solar panels at 21 sites. Once the project is completed, it will be the largest solar deployment for a public school system in California, and possibly the United States. The district estimates a $17 million in energy expense savings over 20 years.

“California is ahead of Texas in incorporating alternative energy technologies, but we’re catching up, and PISD definitely hopes to serve as a demonstration campus that will show the local and world community the benefits of solar technologies,” said Blasingame. “Solar is catching on as the cost per kW has continued to fall, and technologies have improved. As with all trends, it all comes down to economics.”

Understanding how the Gulf Coast region responds to solar technology is another aspect of the program.

“This is a unique opportunity for students, the local community, architects, scientists, engineers and business owners to study how renewable resources can save on energy costs, and how the area’s weather, pollution and geographical location impacts the technologies’ effectiveness. It’s a phenomenal learning opportunity, which could ultimately determine if solar technologies are a sustainable energy source for the Houston area,” said Haut.

Funding for the program resulted from a $2 million settlement of a Clean Air Act enforcement suit brought by Environment Texas and the Sierra Club. HARC has contracted with Ignite Solar, a Houston-based company that specializes in the design of commercial and large-scale solar photovoltaic projects, to provide a comprehensive turnkey solar system to PISD.

RESOURCES

  • Building Solar Schools in the U.S. http://www.solarschools.com/us/
  • Foundation for Environmental Education: http://www.solarschools.org/solar-school-initiative/

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