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New Orleans Solar Schools Initiative 

The New Orleans Solar School Initiative unveils its first foray into alt-energy education

click to enlarge An installer puts the finishing touches on a solar panel system - mounted on the roof of Warren Easton Senior High School, a designated - New Orleans Solar School.
  • An installer puts the finishing touches on a solar panel system mounted on the roof of Warren Easton Senior High School, a designated New Orleans Solar School.

Frank Coco, environmental science teacher at Warren Easton Senior High School, will receive a new curriculum — courtesy of Entergy Corporation. The class, part of which covers alternative energies, will step away from its typical reading materials and get a firsthand look at solar panels at work, thanks to a newly installed solar panel system mounted on a roof on the campus.

  Coco's upperclassmen study wind and solar power energies, but rather than learn from their books, the students will use interactive software that displays in real time the power the panels are capable of drawing. Students can see for themselves the impact of renewable energies. The New Orleans Solar School Initiative, a collaborative effort with Entergy Corporation, Nike, the Department of Energy (DOE) and several community groups, developed the new addition to the curriculum, which the school formally announces Sept. 30. The initiative chose Warren Easton as the first of four Orleans Parish schools (the next site will be Joseph A. Craig Elementary) to take part in the project.

  "Kids have an opportunity for something hands-on, and (to) really see what alternative energy is about, and (to) learn about the importance of energy efficiency and conservation," says Patty Riddlebarger, director of corporate social responsibility for Entergy Corporation. "Students are able to see in real time and keep track over a period of time the amount of power that's generated by the solar panel, and they can look at the weather patterns on any given day and see how much sunshine you had, how much energy is generated when it's sunny, when it's cloudy, when it's raining."

  The panels aren't just for show; they're powering part of the school. The software will show students how much energy the panels are offsetting from the grid and also functions as a network with other solar schools across the country and the world, Riddlebarger says. "They can compare," she says. "Our solar panels in New Orleans today are generating X amount of power, and it's partly cloudy, but over in Arizona, it's totally sunny and their schools are generating X amount."

  The program is modeled after similar solar schools around the world, including a National Solar Schools program in Australia, Pacific Gas and Electric-funded school programs in California and community-led efforts like the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation.

  In 2006, Entergy Corporation pledged to reduce its plants' emissions by 20 percent over a five-year commitment through efficiency improvements at plants and by purchasing carbon offsets. The company purchased a $200,000 block of offsets from Nike, counterbalancing 100,000 metric tons of the company's carbon emissions. Nike reinvested $150,000 from those offsets for a potential project for New Orleans, and in 2007, Entergy committed an additional $1.5 million to the project. Entergy and Nike, with input from the DOE and community partners like The Green Project, developed the foundations for the Solar School initiative.

  "Because so many of the schools' physical plants were so totally devastated by Hurricane Katrina, we thought, as the community rebuilds, let's look at how we can rebuild schools that are sustainable," Riddlebarger says. She adds that additional funding for the project comes from Entergy Corporation shareholders, not Entergy New Orleans ratepayers. "We're not being generous at the ratepayers' expense," she says.

In 2007, Entergy Corporation sent out a bid for installation services — companies with the resources and knowledge for a potential citywide solar project. Entergy chose IX Energy, a solar contractor with Federal Prison Industries Inc., and Advanced Green Technologies, a 25-year-old renewable-energy roofing specialist. The companies collaborated to construct a 28 kilowatt, 6,634-square-foot system capable of producing 37,000 kilowatt hours each year — enough energy to power more than 500 lightbulbs for a month.

  Steve Hoffman, CEO of IX Energy, says the classroom software can present graphic models displaying "how much electricity is produced per day and what that implies for how many homes that could power." The program also can display a comprehensive energy-efficiency chart, showing not only the displaced carbon emissions, but also how network operating centers and security operation centers — a utilities company's system managers — are displaced using an on-site renewable source. The software also measures the impact on the environment in terms of gallons of gas, dozens of lightbulbs and pounds of coal that aren't needed because of the energy produced by the solar unit.

  The contractors use panels made by Uni-Solar, a company that produces durable, thin-film photovoltaic laminates that bond to the roof.

In 2007, the DOE designated New Orleans a Solar America City — one of only 13 U.S. cities named that year to serve as a model of solar development for the rest of the country. Other cities included the green-forward likes of Portland, Ore., and San Francisco. The following year, the DOE added another 12 cities, bringing the total of solar model cities in the U.S. to 25. The DOE provides these cities with technical assistance and the know-how to create solarcentric policy and generate public awareness. With the solar school initiative, the DOE also will provide energy assessments and audits of the solar schools. In addition, the DOE EnergySmart Schools program will provide energy assessments of 75 nonsolar New Orleans public schools in an effort to help reduce emissions and help schools save on utilities costs.

  Riddlebarger says Entergy hopes to expand the solar schools project to other institutions. "We're hoping other people might be interested in coming on board with potential funding," she says. "But we're hoping to get these next [schools] up and running as soon as possible."

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