Solar Schools

Timing was right for solar investments at Edina Public Schools

New installations save money, engage students, and demonstrate leadership

back to school solar

 

While back-to-school at Edina Public Schools looks different this fall due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, new solar investments by the district are a welcome bright spot in otherwise challenging times.

Three installations completed this year provide the district with opportunities to save money on energy use, engage students, and demonstrate leadership in local sustainability efforts.

 

I think it’s really important for schools to take initiative, to set an example for their students and others, and to take leadership on sustainability and clean energy.

Ana Martinez, Edina Public High School student and member of Project Earth club

New solar investments made by Edina Public Schools include an initial 30 kW project on the Edina Transportation Building, which will be expanded to a 240 kW system this fall, a 410 kW system on Cornelia Elementary School, and a smaller demonstration project at Edina High School, which Edina’s student-led Project Earth club advocated for and helped fund with proceeds from their winning submission to the Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs) 2017 Solar Video Contest.

 

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Navigating complexity in siting solar

Eric Hamilton, Director of Buildings & Grounds at Edina Public Schools, navigated the bidding process and managed the projects with support from CERTs Solar Possible effort.

“It was a longer, slower and more complicated process than I imagined, when we first started,” explained Hamilton. “It was a wise choice to work with CERTs and the University of Minnesota to help with the vetting process of potential installers. An early meeting with our attorney, who had worked on solar deals, would have saved me some time and energy. So, I’d recommend school districts involve even more people from the start.”

Ultimately, the district selected SolarPod, a Minnesota-based renewable energy and engineering consulting company, to help create project plans and lead installation, permitting, and commissioning of all three projects. The team evaluated which facilities would work best for the planned investments.

We looked at all sites, roof ages, sun exposure, structure of the buildings to be able to handle the additional load.

Eric Hamilton, Edina Public Schools Director of Buildings & Grounds

“We looked at all sites, roof ages, sun exposure, structure of the buildings to be able to handle the additional load,” said Eric Hamilton, Edina Public Schools Director of Buildings & Grounds, explaining which criteria the district used to decide project locations.

“The new Transportation Building was an easy choice. We made sure the building was designed to handle the additional load. Cornelia Elementary School was just getting an entire new roof installed, so the timing was perfect to look at solar for that location,” said Hamilton about locations for the two larger solar systems.

 

“Our team worked to get the school to install a solar array at the high school after we won the solar video contest,” said Ana Martinez, a junior at Edina High School and leader with Project Earth. “When we met with the staff about the installation, we didn’t know what the possibilities were, so we worked together to explore our options.”

Martinez noted that the roof of the high school could not accommodate a larger system but a smaller array could be installed to help educate students about the technology and the school’s investments in clean energy.

Drawing on technology and partnership

Based on requirements at each site, the three projects relied on different racking technology and used innovations in ballasting to reduce raw inputs. Reducing materials such as concrete when mounting solar arrays can lead to more energy savings over the life cycle of the projects.

“These projects were unique in that we used Minnesota-patented technologies: our no-penetration SolarPod Z-Rack system on the sloped roof of the Transportation Building and our Z-Lite system on Cornelia’s flat roof,” said Dr. Mouli Vaidyanathan, CEO of SolarPod and project lead. “These technologies and our ballasting that holds the systems down use less concrete than typical solar installations. So, the roof will be cooler, and there is a lower climate impact from the materials we use, since concrete is a big emitter of greenhouse gases.”

In addition to the unique technologies used, Dr. Vaidyanathan spoke to the importance of having an active partnership with the district, especially while navigating some unexpected delays during the process.

“Despite the COVID-19 pandemic this spring and some delays from that and other factors, it was superb working with Eric and Edina Public Schools. The experience has been a great partnership — it’s been a team-oriented approach to execute these projects, and we’ve learned important lessons about working with schools,” said Vaidyanathan.

projectearth

Project Earth club

Educational opportunities from solar investment

Part of Vaidyanathan and SolarPod’s commitment in their partnership with Edina Public Schools and Project Earth students has been to provide in-kind teaching support to students interested in learning more about clean energy and solar technology.

“We have installed a very unique teaching system for students for Edina High School. I have a promise to the Edina students that I’ll teach them on the system free of cost each year, in the coming years,” Vaidyanathan said. “I’m happy to give my time to explain the system and how students can get involved in solar energy. We’ve added so many features to that demonstration project that students can learn from.”

Project Earth students point to the importance of having tangible educational opportunities to connect to clean energy that can inspire more action and engagement.

“With these installations and especially the one at the high school, our main goal was to have an educational purpose, to have classroom applications, to encourage engagement of students and participation in actions we have in the future,” said Martinez about the educational benefits these projects can have for students.

With these installations and especially the one at the high school, our main goal was to have an educational purpose, to have classroom applications, to encourage engagement of students and participation in actions we have in the future.

Ana Martinez, Edina Public High School student and member of Project Earth club

Project Earth Video Contest Entries

Acknowledging success and continuing to move forward

With these projects completed, the district has started reaping rewards in the form of lower energy bills and is getting good marks from active students and community members, who see the environmental benefits these projects provide.

“I think it’s really important for schools to take initiative, to set an example for their students and others, and to take leadership on sustainability and clean energy,” said Martinez. “I’m glad that our school district is noticing the need to be a leader and taking the actions they are. While there’s a lot of work still to do, I’m glad that we’re starting to take the steps we’re taking.”

 

“Ultimately, we have to move everyone in the direction that nature is telling us to go. That requires taking steps toward clean energy, to restructure a more careful plan for caring for our environment, neighborhoods, and future generations,” said Paul Thomspon, a former elementary school teacher and local environmental activist based in Edina, who helps advise the Project Earth club. Thompson supported student efforts to push the school district to invest in solar, given schools are often large energy users within a community.

While acknowledging these projects demonstrate leadership and are a step forward, students at Project Earth hope the school district continues taking action to advance clean energy and sustainability. The school can count on the students to stay engaged and active on these topics, as well.

“We hope that these investments on the elementary school and the transportation building will help encourage the school to move forward on even more solar and sustainability projects,” said Martinez. “One of our plans for this year, even though it’s a challenging time, is to come up with a comprehensive sustainability plan for our school, including a focus on energy, to help them along.”

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