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Sixth-Grade Problem Solvers Propose Solar For Northumberland County Schools

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Northumberland schools will soon be going solar, if a group of ambitious sixth-graders can convince the county to “go green.”

The Talented and Gifted “Community Problem Solvers” group enlisted the NAPS board and membership to mentor it in preparation for presentations to the school board and other county decision-makers. After a preliminary meeting with NAPS board members Rita Johnson, Mike Ahart, and Shauna McCranie (TAG student instructor), a field trip was scheduled to visit the solar/wind-powered residence and guest house of NAPS members Roger & Bette Gruben on Monday Dec. 17, 2018, followed by a presentation to the school board Jan. 16.

Attending the field trip to the Grubens were students Kayla Baker, Tre Booth, Olivia Byrd, Leon Zarraga Dominquez, Charlie Hapgood, Jesus Lopez, Brayden Newsome, Olivia Newsome, Lily Padgett, Jesus Ramirez, Itzel Santamaria, Sanaa Thomas and Ava Wilson. Joining them were NES ESL teacher Amy Jones, NES science teacher Brittany Kanard, NAPS board member Gena McKinley, McCranie, Ahart, and the Grubens.

Roger Gruben first gave the students a tour of the systems supporting the “off-grid” guest house/workshop, which is powered by a 1kW wind turbine and 5.6kW solar panel array. In the control shed, the two power sources charge an array of large batteries which store power for the guest house. A propane generator is tied into the system as a backup.

Next, the students took a tour of the grounds of the Gruben’s main residence, where Roger and Bette demonstrated the solar powered water pump and showed off their arrays of solar panels on the roofs and grounds. Roger demonstrated that the grid-tied electric meter turns “backward” when the solar arrays produce more energy than the residence is using. A separate meter measures total power generation to calculate Solar Renewable Energy Credits – several states and the District of Columbia require their electric utilities to source some of their power from renewable energy sources or pay a penalty; however, they are allowed to make up the shortfall by buying credits from renewable energy producers, including homeowners.

Roger then escorted the students into the garage and showed them how his all-electric Tesla Model 3 car plugs into the home electric system to be charged by the solar arrays. With a range of 310 miles on a full charge, “we never need to stop anywhere to recharge when we’re driving in the area,” Roger told the students. “If we go on a long trip, there are plenty of fast-charging stations along the way and at many hotels,” he added.

The students were then invited into the house for cocoa and treats. Bette Gruben, whose background includes green-energy solutions for commercial construction projects, demonstrated how the power production of their home can be monitored on their 65” TV or any other computer or mobile device. “The panels produced 45.8 kWhs today, and are still producing some power this late in the day,” said Bette. It was nearly 5 p.m. just days before the winter solstice.

The students researched other county schools that have gone solar, including ones in nearby Middlesex and Westmoreland Counties. Middlesex County Public Schools recently entered a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) for a 1.01MW energy system to provide 100% of the power to a middle and elementary school, with expected savings of over $2.6 million in energy costs over 25 years. The system is now up and running. The PPA requires no investment by the school system or county – the system is owned and maintained by a Virginia-based solar energy company. A similar agreement was recently enacted by Westmoreland County for Cople Elementary School, where solar array construction should be completed soon.

The Community Problem Solvers made a presentation to the Northumberland County School Board Wed., Jan. 16 outlining the benefits and options for the schools to “go solar.” When the students noted that the solar farm at Middlesex schools required no investment by the county, the board members’ interest piqued. The students were thanked heartily for their presentation.

The Community Problem Solvers are also researching the learning opportunities afforded by having a solar power plant on campus. Organizations have developed curriculum and teacher training that coordinates with Virginia’s Standards Of Learning and Common Core specifications. The students also envision extracurricular opportunities for projects and conservation programs.

Other solar benefits include providing power during outages – the buildings can function as full-powered shelters for the community after a hurricane or tropical storm. The solar plant will also reduce pollution and the use of fossil fuels, and as the students note in their presentation: “It’s cool to have a solar school!”

Next step: The Community Problem Solvers is planning a field trip to tour the solar array at the Middlesex schools, and have invited the school board, superintendent Dr. Holly Wargo, and county personnel to join them (tentatively scheduled for Feb. 6). During the field trip they plan to meet with Middlesex school administrators, teachers and students, and the Education Market Manager for Sun Tribe Solar, the company contracted for the PPA in Middlesex County and in Westmoreland County’s Cople Elementary School.

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