Solar power takes off at Vashon schools

Jordan Beck, left, and Gib Dammann celebrated Earth Day with a solar panel display at Saturday’s Farmers Market. - Leslie Brown/staff photo
Jordan Beck, left, and Gib Dammann celebrated Earth Day with a solar panel display at Saturday’s Farmers Market.
— image credit: Leslie Brown/staff photo

A small solar array will soon adorn Vashon High School’s B Building — perhaps the first of several solar installations at Vashon’s public schools and the only to grace a public building on the Island.

The one-kilowatt system, funded by an educational grant through the state Office of the Superintendent of Public Instruction, will be installed next month at the school.

The solar energy collector will be used as an educational tool for students there, said teacher Amy Bogaard: They will be able to watch part of the solar panels’ installation and see electronic readouts of the array’s output once it’s in place.

The school district has also applied for a $15,000 grant from Puget Sound Energy that would allow the addition of more solar panels to the array, bringing its total output to three kilowatts, Bogaard said — enough to power an average household. Staff will hear in June whether they’ve been awarded the grant from the utility company.

Thinking more long term, a Vashon group interested in the possibility of collectively owned solar panels hopes someday to install a much larger, for-profit, array at McMurray Middle School, said Islander Gib Dam-mann, a member of the newly formed Community Solar Group.

He’s spoken to Vashon Island School District officials about the possibility of privately owned solar panels at the middle school, and they are amenable to the suggestion. More research into the possibility still needs to be done, however.

“We see this as a potentially big contribution toward providing no-coal electricity on this Island,” Dammann said. “I’ve never been so psyched as I am right now for big change, specifically solar.”

First, though, Islanders are looking forward to seeing the school district venture into the world of solar power when arrays are placed atop the B Building at Vashon High in May.

“I’m excited about the prospect of being able to have hands-on teaching experiences for the kids and to be able to really physically see what the potential is for energy production,” said Bogaard, who teaches career and technical education and geometry courses at the high school.

The solar panels will go up on the B Building because that structure — should the high school be remodeled — would be the last to go, Bogaard said. If the building is torn down, the solar panels will be moved to another location at the high school, she said.

Electricians from Artisan Electric, experts in solar, will install the system atop the B Building. The $13,000 project is funded through the state education office’s career and technical grants program. The solar arrays won’t put out enough electricity to be a major source of power for the school; they’ll be mainly educational tools for students.

“We’ll be able to do experiments, like shading portions of the panels and seeing how electric production goes down,” Bogaard said. “That whole part is going to be really fun for the kids, and I think they’re really going to enjoy it. I know I will, too.”

She plans to put a computer in the high school library that is devoted to teaching students about the solar array atop their school — giving them access to up-to-date power output readouts and allowing them to see what can be powered by that much electricity.

Meanwhile, Islanders have banded together to form the Community Solar Group, an affiliate of Sustainable Vashon and the Island’s Coal-Free Zone project. The solar enthusiasts envision a day not far in the future when people can invest as little as $100 in a large-scale solar array that will be placed on Island property — perhaps atop McMurray Middle School — and see a good return for their investment within a few years, Dammann said.

The state Legislature recently enacted laws that allow groups to benefit from financial incentives for going solar, he said, opening the door for community solar initiatives.

“We are now at a point where private individuals can invest any amount of money toward large community-based photovoltaic arrays and get a return on their investment that makes it doable,” Dammann said. “Maybe soon we can get 40 people together, each buying a share of $2,500, and a 14-kilowatt array goes on top of McMurray Middle School.”

The school would benefit from having the for-profit solar panels on its roof, he said, because it would get discounted solar power from the project. The surplus power could be sold to Puget Sound Energy.

Hopefully, within a year, the community solar project will be off the ground, seeking small and medium-sized investments in a project that could reap benefits for investors and the community, he said.

Vashon’s group of solar enthusiasts are in good company — large community solar projects are in the works in Port Townsend and Ellensburg.

“This gives us as individuals and as communities a little bit of power,” Dammann said.

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