Bright idea: Southern MD school goes solar

A St. Mary's County grade school's getting a high-tech, green present this month - solar energy panels to help light up the classrooms and inspire young minds.

School and county officials are to hold a "groundbreaking" Dec. 13 for installation of the 500 kilowatt system at George Washington Carver Elementary School in Great Mills.  The 2,200 photovoltaic panels are expected to generate 667,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity in the first year - which is about 80 percent of the power the school uses, according to a release from Standard Solar, the Rockville-based company involved in the project.

Solar energy's got a reputation for being pricey up front, and this system's worth an estimated $2.5 million, according to a release from the county school system.  It's costing the county virtually nothing to install, though, thanks to a $500,000 grant from the Maryland Energy Administration and a power purchase agreement under which the capital costs are paid back over 15 years.   School officials say they'll be paying below current market rates for the electricity generated by the panels, so overall it'll save county taxpayers money.  The state grant, by the way, is part of MEA's Project Sunburst, which is using federal stimulus funds to put solar energy systems on public buildings.

It's another pioneering step from a school system that's getting comfortable with going green.   Last year, St. Mary's opened a new school in California appropriately dubbed Evergreen Elementary, which features photovoltaic panels, a small wind turbine, a green roof and two large cisterns for capturing rain water to flush the toilets.  Building the school to Gold LEED standards wasn't just for show, either - school officials said they would use the green features as teaching tools throughout the curriculum.

In like educational fashion, there'll be a real-time monitoring system put in the lobby of Carver so students, teachers, parents and staff can track the school's energy use and see how the solar system is performing.  What a bright idea!

(Solar array atop Rockville Arena, installed by Standard Solar; photo courtesy Standard Solar)

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