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Missoula County Public Schools will work this summer on a $1 million project with the city and Northwestern Energy to install solar panels at four of the district’s high schools.

The panels will be installed at Hellgate, Sentinel, Big Sky and Willard high schools, with construction scheduled to be complete by the start of the 2019-20 school year.

At a presentation Wednesday to the Missoula City Council, Superintendent Mark Thane said the project will provide educational opportunities for students and teachers, in addition to aligning with the district’s sustainability and zero waste initiatives.

“This project will allow us to stimulate not only high school but community conversations about sustainable and renewable energy resources,” Thane said.

The collaborative effort — aimed at educating students and the community about the potential of solar energy — will also explore ways to incorporate solar panels into urban settings.

Solar energy is the cleanest and most abundant source of renewable energy. Thane said the project will help Missoula better understand what sustainable resources will look like for the city’s future and assist in the "effort to transition away from carbon generation, largely.”

It will also allow students to view data on dashboards in the schools and see how much energy the solar panels generate versus how much energy the schools are consuming, in real-time.

“We envision high school students in the Advanced Problems in Science class being able to conduct immediate action research on relevant topics,” Thane said.

The panels at MCPS high schools won't cost the district anything.

Northwestern Energy committed $1 million toward construction for the Missoula project, which is the latest in a series of community-based renewable energy pilot projects. In late 2016, the company piloted a “community greenspace” solar project in Bozeman, and additional pilot projects are underway in Helena.

The company has not decided whether it will put operations and maintenance costs into rates, although NorthWestern is also responsible for those costs, according to John Carmody, the director of Engineering and Planning at NorthWestern Energy.

“A lot of that is going to be driven by the politics that are out there at the state level," Carmody said.

Carmody said the $1 million will come from outside the company’s normal business.

Themes at high schools

The Missoula projects aim to explore the integration of renewable energy into urban environments, instead of focusing on maximizing the solar output of the panels, according to John Shafer, a technology engineer at NorthWestern Energy.

The Missoula project has been in the making for the past two years, with individuals from the city of Missoula, school district and NorthWestern working together to plan the design, technology and curriculum associated with the solar panels.

Each school has a different theme and focus.

Big Sky High School’s panels will focus on “value” with the use of high-efficiency modules that generate 25.6 kW, and 29,900 kWh per year. The Big Sky plan also features battery storage in a 8-foot by 20-foot container.

Shafer said the batteries will allow them to simulate solar production by charging the energy storage, which they will use to power the high school gym, “essentially powering their high school basketball games by renewable energy.”

In one of the more experimental designs, at Willard Alternative High School, Northwestern will install a “building integrated solar fence” made of photovoltaic panels.

Shafer said the design explores how to incorporate solar technology into existing structures and allows engineers to experiment with technology. The Willard design will generate 15.6 kW, and 16,400 kWh per year.

At the Wednesday meeting, City Council president Bryan von Lossberg emphasized that the project is not intended to maximize energy production for the schools.

“When they are up on the roof, they are out of sight, out of mind,” von Lossberg said. “This is a learning opportunity...We’re getting to try out a number of different things, for instance, the Willard vertical fencing. We know that's not a very efficient way to collect solar energy, but at the same time, you’ve got a lot of unused vertical space.”

Hellgate’s design, which follows the theme of “urban integration," will act as a carport at the school’s parking structure and generate 31.2 kW and 35,000 kWh per year.

Sentinel’s “outdoor classroom” panels focus heavily on the educational opportunities posed by the projects, featuring panels rotated in different directions with the goal of exploring how photovoltaic panels can be arranged to maximize energy production. The design also creates a shaded outdoor learning space.

Thane said that while the pilot projects are currently focused on exploring technologies and fostering community education, he hopes future designs can be geared more toward maximizing the generation of electricity from solar panels. However, he said that learning to maximize on energy production is part of the “action research that needs to be conducted.”

“Part of our understanding will be to track what our energy use is and our energy production to see if it's viable and we get the kind of return on investment that you might anticipate from solar, given the nuances of the school schedule and school calendar,” Thane said, adding that solar output tends to be the highest during the summer when school is out of session.

Integrating curriculum

Thane compared the new public-private collaboration to the district’s existing partnership with nonprofit Garden City Harvest, which allows students and teachers to use school gardens as outdoor classrooms (and provides the district with locally grown food to use in the school lunch program).

Similar to the “Farmer in the Classroom” program associated with Garden City Harvest, Thane said the district envisions “Engineers in the Classroom” as part of the educational program associated with the solar panels.

Beyond the visibility of solar panels on campuses, teachers across MCPS high schools are continuing to develop curriculum on solar energy that will align with state standards.

Ben Cummins, a science and engineering teacher at Sentinel, said that he and other teachers began meeting about a year ago to discuss curriculum, eventually settling on “trunk” kits that they will request from the district.

The kits will contain a variety of materials geared toward instruction on solar energy, including about five days' worth of lessons and tools to collect data.

Cummins said the trunk materials are interdisciplinary so they can be tailored to different subjects, such as earth and environmental science, physics or algebra.

Cummins' Principles of Engineering class has an in-depth unit on solar energy that he spends nine to 11 weeks on. He hopes the dashboards will allow access to real-time data. He said real-time data would enable him to work with students in his Earth Science class to connect current conditions with the data.

“So if a cloud was in front of the sun, I can watch the numbers decrease in front of me,” he said.

Cummins and Thane both agreed that one of the most important takeaways for students will be learning to examine how much energy they're consuming as a school versus how much energy they are producing, and prompt further conversations about conservation.

“If you can take a look at how much a school’s actually using, then you can have kids work on different initiatives to turn off the computers on Fridays or if you don’t need the lights, turn them off,” Cummins said.

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