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Solar panels are often placed on rooftops, leaving them out of sight and out of mind, but four new installations at Sentinel, Big Sky, Hellgate and Willard high schools seek to do the opposite.

"This is a really public way for us as a school district of demonstrating our commitment to those alternative energy sources and engaging the entire community in that project," said Rob Watson, superintendent of Missoula County Public Schools.

The district presented the new panels Wednesday in partnership with NorthWestern Energy and the City of Missoula in a project that aims to identify how urban renewable energy projects can integrate with the electric grid.

NorthWestern Energy spent $1 million for the panels, which will not generate energy for the schools despite their location. Rather, the energy will go into the company's grid.

"There's a benefit for NorthWestern Energy in that we get to test some new technology that has not been tested," said the company's community relations manager, Steve Clawson. "For the school district, it's an opportunity for kids and teachers to understand the value of renewable energy and how it differs from installation to installation."

Although the energy will not go to the district, the panels will provide students with educational opportunities by acting as "learning labs."

"I do wish that they were going to the school but I think even just having more solar panels in Missoula will be a little step toward people thinking ‘Maybe I could do something to help the environment' because they’re right there in front of the school when you come in," said Hanna Darne, a Sentinel sophomore and Eco Club president.

In the coming months, students at each of the four high schools will analyze energy data from the panels to design solutions for reducing human impact, learn to analyze an energy-conversion device and perform cost-benefit ratios.

Ben Cummins, an engineering and earth science teacher at Sentinel, said he hopes the district can make data available that show how much energy the school is using and producing.

"We would like to see real time data about consumption and production and from there, we can make initiatives inside the school to be more energy conscious," Cummins said.

The panels will help prepare students for a future that will require innovation and renewable energy sources, while also teaching students how to use tools and equipment needed for an entry level job or advanced training in the field.

"These projects give us an opportunity to engage our students in learning around alternative energy sources, so that’s been really powerful for us because we can now create lessons and curriculum around these materials," Watson said.

Science, math and career and technical education (CTE) teachers within the district developed curriculum focusing on renewable energy over the past year. On Wednesday, NorthWestern gave the district an additional $25,000 to help pay for materials to go with new curriculum.

Students and teachers will be the first with access to the data, which the district hopes to make available to them by the end of November. The students will then provide feedback on the data portal to NorthWestern Energy before the website design is completed and made available to the public.

The Missoula City Council hopes the project can help them examine the feasibility of various solar installation models to deliver power to the city, in line with a resolution unanimously passed in April to move the city's electricity to 100% clean, renewable sources by 2030.

City Council President Bryan von Lossberg said the city has a long road ahead to meeting its goal but said that he's proud of the discussions taking place around renewable energy and glad to see NorthWestern's willingness to collaborate.

"We recognize we’re not going to agree on everything but the threshold for partnership and collaboration is not 100% agreement," von Lossberg said. "It’s where can we find common ground and common values and work together."

The district became involved in the project after NorthWestern approached the city two years ago and then the city approached the district and former superintendent Mark Thane.

At a June City Council meeting where the district presented designs for the solar installations, von Lossberg emphasized that not all of the models were designed to maximize energy production. The designs differ from school to school with the goal of exploring which ones are the most feasible for an urban environment.

At Sentinel, the three panels oriented at different angles provide shade over a grassy area near the student parking lot, which teachers can use as an outdoor classroom. The orientation of the double-sided panels explore how they can be arranged in different ways to maximize energy production, in addition to how they can use light reflected off snow in the winter.

Similarly, the panels at Hellgate near downtown Missoula act as a carport and provide shade in the school's parking lot. The panels at Hellgate sit in direct sunlight and generate the most electricity of the models at 31.2 kilowatts per hour, compared to the installation at Sentinel which will generate the least energy of the models at 13.6 kW per hour.

Big Sky's panels form a shaded walkway for students while also exploring how to store generated energy in a battery storage system.

At Willard, a "solar fence" made of photovoltaic panels explores how to incorporate solar technology into existing buildings and infrastructure.

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