Solar panels spark bright questions

Sager students are tracking the energy production of the panels and a wind turbine.

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Sager Middle School science teacher Darin Durand observes his students working in groups from the back of his classroom just before the end of the day on Wednesday, May 4. Wednesday, May 4, 2011

COLLEGE PLACE -- New solar panels recently installed at Sager Middle School are doing more than creating energy for the school. The panels are also helping students generate ideas and questions about renewable energy, the possibilities of harnessing the sun's rays for power, and the science behind it all.

The 10 panels are laid out on a pedestal mount at the school, on lawn space beside a wind turbine that was installed at the school last year through the same education conservation program.

The turbine and panels were acquired free of charge through the Columbia Rural Electric Association. The turbine was installed last April, and the panels almost exactly one year later.

Sager is not the only local school to benefit from the conservation awards. Rogers Adventist School in College Place also has a wind turbine and solar panels, said Scott Peters, manager of marketing and member services for Columbia REA in Walla Walla.

Students at Columbia Elementary and Columbia Middle School in Burbank also will soon have solar panels installed between their campuses, Peters said.

The Burbank installation will complete the grant program, with no current plans to renew funding. The education conservation grants are funded by Bonneville Power Administration, which supplies the power that Columbia REA then sells. The purpose of the grant is to support conservation as well as education.

"This one is as much education as it is conservation," Peters said about the program. "Hopefully (we're) getting some of the kids excited about coming up with new ideas, and things to make life better in the future."

Darin Durand, a science teacher at Sager, helped the school seek and receive both the wind turbine and solar panels. Both are visible from Durand's classroom windows, a constant reminder of their presence and abilities.

Durand and his students are tracking the energy production of each device, and the potential of each to harness energy in a sustainable way.

Students have already learned that solar power can outperform wind. The school's wind turbine generated about 400 kilowatts last year, Durand said, citing a recent data analysis. The solar panels are projected to exceed that, and generate 3,5000 kilowatts in a year's time. Yet the turbine and panels have the same capacity, with each able to collect a maximum 2.3 kilowatts per hour.

"The wind doesn't always blow," Durand said, explaining the expected discrepancy. But even on a cloudy day, solar panels can find and collect the sun's energy.

Durand said he sought the equipment because of the many educational lessons that can be drawn by having renewable energy sources installed at the school. There is also the added bonus of having the devices generating electricity for the school -- not enough to take it off the grid, but to help through savings.

Students are able to track the production of the turbine, which is much smaller than commercial ones, and the solar panels on a nearly daily basis. Television screens set up at the school show how the turbine and solar panels perform, with spikes and dips representing overcast or windy days, or overnight readings.

The students are also learning about renewable energy, and asking questions, such as why are wind turbines so abundant in the state, when solar energy is more powerful?

Durand said one student, after a lesson on electromagnetic waves, asked what type of light wave solar panels collect, or what part of the photon is captured -- stumping his teacher until it could be researched in class.

Durand is also working with the school's math teachers to look at the data collected seasonally. The power generation is also being graphed to track monthly output.

"It just gets the kids thinking," Durand said.

The platform that the solar panels are mounted is adjustable, and can be moved to be at a better angle to the sun as the months pass.

Having the panels off the roof, and with the added bonus of getting to adjust them manually, helps get the students more involved, Durand said.

"We wanted it to be a little more interactive for the kids," he said.

Peters said putting solar panels on a pedestal mount, instead of on a roof, makes it easier for students to see and be aware of its capabilities.

"Be there on a sunny day, put your hand behind it, you can really feel it," he said. "It's grabbing the warmth."

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