School solar panels generating power, excitement

2013-01-14T00:00:00Z 2013-01-14T10:05:04Z School solar panels generating power, excitementBy Phil Wieland phil.wieland@nwi.com, (219) 548-4352 nwitimes.com

VALPARAISO | The Porter County Career and Technical Center not only has the sun and the wind working for it, it also has the moon and the stars, according to Principal Jon Groth.

The school already had a wind generator. Now, a 32-panel array of solar powered photovoltaic cells began operating last Monday on the school's roof at 1005 N. Franklin St. Groth said the panels are generating about 7.7 kilowatts per hour when the sun is out. On cloudy days it's a little less but still producing power.

What he hadn't expected is that the panels are even capable of producing some electricity at night just from the light of the moon and stars.

"It's about enough to run a clock radio, but I would have thought before this that it would be nothing," Groth said. "We also are experimenting to discover things like the difference in the power generated on a clear day at different times of the year and how much it generates when the panels are covered with snow."

The school worked with Midwest Wind and Solar to acquire the solar panels, and the installation was done by students in the electronics and the modern machining programs with guidance from the company. The $35,000 cost of the panels and other materials was covered with local economic development funds and private donors.

The installation began with the start of the school year in the fall and involved several steps, including the electronic connections and wiring to the NIPSCO meter. Groth said it took a little longer than expected, but it was a good learning experience in alternative energy for the students and Groth.

"It has had an impact on the whole school," Groth said. "Energy is one of the costs we have some control over. This project has re-energized all of us to conserve more by turning lights off, recycling more and even making behavior changes."

The school replaced its fluorescent bulbs with LEDs, saving about $12 a year per fixture, and they added motion detectors so lights will be on less. The alternative energy efforts paid dividends during a power outage before Christmas. Hallway lights connected to the alternative sources were about the only lights on in much of the city, and classes were moved to the hall during the blackout.

Groth said his goal is to someday have the school roof covered in solar and wind energy generators that not only will provide all the school's electricity needs but a surplus it can sell back to NIPSCO. The school pays 10 cents per kwh from NIPSCO, but NIPSCO has to pay three times that for any energy it buys.

To pay for the expansion of the project, he hopes to get investors to cover the initial cost, and they will be paid back by the money received from NIPSCO. The solar panels have a 30-year warranty but generate enough power to pay back the initial investment in eight years, a feature that should attract investors.

"I've learned a heck of a lot from this, and I got kind of turned on by it," he said.

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