By Jessica Lovell
Solar panels are sprouting up in fields and on rooftops all around Guelph as people see the environmental and financial benefits of investing in renewable energy. But for the public school board, solar projects are more than a financial investment.
They are an investment in education.
“To have renewable energy in the face of kids every day can mould their behaviour down the road,” said Blair Capling, project manager of the Upper Grand District School Board’s solar project. Locally, the board has plans to outfit 21 of its elementary schools with 10-kilowatt rooftop solar arrays under the province’s microFIT (Feed-In Tariff) program.The projects were approved under the program’s original 80 cents per kilowatt hour pricing, said Capling. The board has three more local schools that it would also like to outfit with solar panels, but changes to the microFIT program last fall have meant those projects have been delayed, he said.
The ultimate goal is to eventually have all the schools generating solar power, including the high schools. Applications have been put in for larger FIT projects for the high schools, but the terms are different and they still require board approval, said Capling.
“We’re trying to be as energy efficient and environmentally friendly as we can,” he said.
But for the board, the projects are about more than energy-efficiency.
They have the potential to teach kids about environmentalism, while also becoming a tool for teaching core subjects like math and science, said Capling.
Because the majority of schools have flat roofs, the solar panels themselves won’t be visible to or “in the face” of kids, so the board has devised a plan to ensure the kids know the panels are there, and know why they are there.
Each school with a solar array will also get a video display in its foyer, showing “real-time data from the solar arrays,” Capling said.
Kids will get to see how much power their school is generating at any given time. They will see the difference between a cloudy day and a sunny day in terms of how much power is fed into the grid. The data will provide a real, practical example that can be used as the basis for classroom projects.
Kids will get to see how the power is used in layman’s terms, said Capling. For example, ten 100-watt light bulbs running for one hour use one kilowatt-hour of electricity and require one kilowatt of power available when they are switched on.
It is these types of calculations that kids will be able to see and do for themselves in their classrooms.
Of course, the project is also a potential money-maker for the board.
Rather than powering the schools, the electricity generated will all be sold to the grid at the province’s guaranteed 20-year rate of 80 cents per kWh. The schools will continue to pay for their hydro at the much lower going rate.
“For sure, it’s going to pay back the initial investment,” said Capling of the deal.
Each project was initially estimated to run the board about $80,000, but recent changes to the FIT program seem to have lowered the costs of everything from the actual panels to the installation, he said.
The projects were tendered, and most seem to be costing in the $50,000 to $55,000 range, he said.
The board has five schools outside of Guelph with solar installations already operating. What they produce in terms of electricity is variable, with higher outputs in the summer when days are longer.
Some of the first payments have come in at around $1,500 a month, said Capling. That is not an average monthly payoff, but nonetheless he estimates the projects will pay back the board’s initial investment within six or seven years.
“Payback is dependent on how much maintenance you have to do,” he added.
The installations are stationary, and the panels and their mounts are expected to last 25 years, so minimal maintenance is expected, he said.
Seven Guelph schools have had the panels installed, but have yet to be hooked up to the grid. These and another seven – all being put in by Grasshopper Solar – are due to be up and running by Aug. 31.
Another seven, being installed by QPA Solar, are due for completion Oct. 1.
Both companies are “planning to do most of their work in the summer, when nobody’s there,” said Capling.