Learning from the Power of the Sun: The Winona High Solar Project


by Dwayne Voegeli • August 2009 • Updated by Ashley Stucky
Installation of the solar panels

In 2005, students in Winona Senior High School’s environmental club were eager to start a project at their school that would be good for the environment, as well as fun and educational. They were tired of simply talking about cool technologies like wind and solar power and wanted to take action. With the help of social studies teacher Dwayne Voegeli, they began developing a plan to purchase and install a solar photovoltaic (PV) system at the school, and created a data logging website as an educational component.

This was to be an expensive adventure. The school first sought approval from the school board: They articulated on the goals of renewable energy education, clean electricity generation, and leadership-modeling in the community. After the board’s approval, the group immediately began fundraising.

They identified a contractor, Jim Jarvis, who helped select a solar PV system that was right for the school’s needs. Jarvis works for APRS World, a small locally-owned company that specializes in data logging and control equipment primarily for the renewable energy industry. He helped the school select a 1.5-kW system, which was installed in February 2009.

Shortly after the panels were installed, the project was brought to a temporary standstill as the school worked through a miscommunication with Xcel Energy. Until it was resolved, the system could not be turned on.

“This process has been very rewarding and very frustrating,” says Voegeli. “The paperwork and other requirements are tough on everyone… but it got done.” Once turned on, the education began.

Jarvis explains. “In addition to an outside structure, the project includes a computer monitor, a web page, and display boards inside the school that explain the mechanics and physics of the solar panel.”

“It displays how much power is being created, and how much carbon and other greenhouse gases are being offset. It could be viewed as a very advanced textbook or computer-learning program for students.” The web service is a crucial piece for integrating energy production data with learning in the classroom.

This is the exciting part for Voegeli, who is team-teaching an environmental science class with science teacher Jed Olson. The two use the data generated by the website for their class. Other science and math courses integrate this into curriculum as well. In addition to its use as a teaching tool, the school hopes this project will act as a catalyst for their community. “We hope this is just the start of more energy awareness and conservation measures throughout the community,” says Voegeli.

Voegeli acknowledges that without the funding provided by CERTs, “the project would simply not have happened.” The CERTs grant amounted to 30% of the project’s total funding, and was the single largest funding source. To others interested in pursuing a similar project, Voegeli suggests, “Find a grant writer or another staff person who has the time and experience to help you.”

Since the PV system’s completion, not only have the students been benefiting in the classroom, but the school has begun work on other projects as well. Voegeli explains that they have nearly completed work on a second solar panel system that also acts as a bike shelter. “I would like to continue to work with more students now and in the future to add more and more renewable energy sources to our high school,” he states. “One day I hope to hit a critical mass where a very large and real investment can be made in these renewable energy sources that will make our small project-by-project approach obsolete.”

Project Snapshot

  • Project: Use solar energy to generate electricity at Winona High School
  • Technology: 1.5-kW solar photovoltaic system
  • Benefits: Supplement environmental learning in the classroom; Offset energy costs and emission output.
  • CERTs Grant: $5,000 from SE CERT

For more information, please contact Dwayne Voegeli at Dwayne.Voegeli@winona.k12.mn.us or 507-494-1586.

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    CERTs Partners:

Minnesota Department of Commerce University of Minnesota Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships and Extension Great Plains Institute Southwest Regional Development Commission