Solar power is money saver for Bethesda private school and Montgomery County Public Schools
Sidwell Friends Lower School creates model for funding solar initiatives
Summer may be over, but students at Sidwell Friends Lower School in Bethesda will be still playing, and learning, using the power of the sun.
The school teamed with Common Cents Solar to install 120 solar panels on the roof of the gymnasium funded entirely by $5,000 "solar bonds" bought by 25 shareholders, mainly parents and community members.
The bond program creates a new approach to financing large-scale solar installations by taking the burden of cost away from the school, said Kirk Renaud, general manger of Common Cents Solar, a Bethesda nonprofit co-op that promotes solar initiatives through community collaboration and education.
Solar installations help save money for private and public schools.
The system will cover half of the gym's energy needs and save the school $4,000 annually in electricity costs, Renaud said. Sidwell Friends had an electric bill of about $450,000 last school year for all campuses.
Solar panels save the Montgomery County Public School system about $30,000 annually because unused electricity generated by rooftop panels receives a credit from Pepco that is taken off the bill. In fiscal 2010, the school system spent about $27 million to power its more than 200 buildings, spokesman Dana Tofig said in an email.
Eight Montgomery County Public Schools have rooftop solar panel systems that are used to save money and create clean energy, said Sean Gallagher, assistant director in the school system's department of facilities management. Schools pay to use solar electricity generated by panels installed by SunEdison solar company, which is based out of Beltsville.
Solar panels are installed based on the size and age of the building's roof, Gallagher said.
About 500 solar panels will be installed on the roof of the upgraded Carderock Springs Elementary School in Bethesda this fall, Gallagher said. Not all modernized schools are able to get solar panels because stormwater management laws may require a vegetated roof to be installed instead.
Additionally, eight other county schools have one or two solar panels on their roof paid for by grants or fundraising efforts, and are used primarily to demonstrate the technology to students, Gallagher said.
Sidwell's solar program
The $200,000 system at Sidwell Friends was purchased by a group of shareholders who will make their money back over a 10-year period using funds the school would normally pay to Pepco in their electric bill, said Michael Saxenian, assistant head of Sidwell Friends School, a private school with campuses in Bethesda and Washington, D.C.
"We're very excited not just for the potential to reduce our environmental footprint but also to demonstrate a model that might help others do the same," Saxenian said.
The shareholders should make a 3 percent return on their investment, Renaud said. Several people bought more then one bond, and the solar panels should be operational next week.
Solar panels provide a tangible way to teach the concept of harnessing energy to young children, said Sidwell Friends science teacher Sam Francis.
"The sun is going to shine. We're putting it to use," she said.
Students at the Lower School will be able to view the energy production of their solar panels using monitors installed inside the school, and Francis plans to incorporate it into the science curriculum.
"If we get some solar cooking going and make some s'mores and roast marshmallows, they will love that," Francis said. "I'm all about gooey edible science."
Sidwell Friends has solar panels on the roof of its middle school in Washington, D.C.
In addition to the economic and environmental gains, the solar installation is also a way to bringing the community together to make a difference, said Ketch Ryan, sewing teacher at Sidwell Friends Lower School and co-founder of Common Cents Solar, who spearheaded the collaboration.
Common Cents Solar has assisted with more than 75 solar instillations in Maryland and Washington, D.C., but the Sidwell Friends School project is the first to be financed by community bonds. Because of the success of the project, the nonprofit has begun to use the model for projects with similar institutions.
Enforcing the idea that solar energy is a valuable part of a creating a better world will make students into ambassadors of the technology, Francis said.
"I think the solar panels will be an oh wow' thing in the beginning and then it will be an of course' thing in the end," Francis said.