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Harnessing sun power at Worthington Elementary

Ellicott City school now powered almost entirely by solar panels

By Sara Toth, stoth@tribune.com

6:12 PM EST, December 13, 2011

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Third-graders at Worthington Elementary School in Ellicott City did more than just learn about solar energy this fall; they learned about the sun's power while a vast array of solar panels were being installed behind their school.

County Executive Ken Ulman was joined by several other local officials as the solar panel field went live Tuesday, Dec. 13, ensuring that Worthington will be powered almost entirely by the sun.

The 2,000 panels were installed over three acres at the old New Cut Landfill behind the school, beginning in September.

"This is a concrete example of our values," Ulman said. "Partnering with an elementary school is a perfect situation, as now we'll have a group of solar ambassadors, solar experts, coming through the school every year, learning about the power of the sun, about solar versus coal – it's really important.

"This is a teaching lab, and it's a great place for us to take people, and say, 'you can make it work, here's how we're putting this into practice.'"

When the solar panels are at peak production, they will generate about 90 percent of Worthington's electrical needs. But as the school becomes more energy efficient as it tries to attain green certification from the Maryland Association for Environmental and Outdoor Education, that production could get closer to 100 percent.

Ulman said he felt comfortable calling Worthington the first solar-powered school in Maryland. While other schools in the state have solar panels on their roofs, he noted, none get as high a proportion of their energy needs from solar.

Worthington Principal Katherine Orlando said the installation of the panels, made possible through a $462,000 Project Sunburst grant through the Maryland Energy Administration, also offered an opportunity to incorporate solar energy teaching into the third-grade science curriculum.

Students have spent the last few months learning about solar energy, which, in the words of third-grader Jason Taylor, who put together an informational pamphlet for the event, is "the sun's rays that reach the earth. This energy can be converted into other forms of energy, such as heat and electricity."

As students learned about the sun, they also learned that on hot days the temperature gets higher, when it rains the water evaporates up in the sky, and when it's cloudy the solar panels use some of yesterday's power, Jason included in his pamphlet.

"(The panels) run on even the slightest little bit of light," said Lexi Cucchiaro, 8, adding that students and staff would be able to track how much sunlight — or radiance — was being gathered through a monitor.

Samantha Anderson, 8, said she thought the panels were good addition to the school.

"It will get the school off fossil fuels — the things that pollute the air," she said.

As students and parents gathered for the panel's activation, Samantha's mother, Karen Anderson, said it was exciting for the students to have a unit on solar energy culminate in such a celebratory way.

"This is a good thing for them," Anderson said. "I don't think they ever thought of it, honestly, of other ways to gather electricity."

Now, Orlando said, students are thinking of it.

"It's exciting that when the kids get older, they may want jobs with solar energy," she said. "This is sparking interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers, which is a great byproduct. It's been a lot of life lessons for them, thinking about when they're adults, and what they want the future to be. It's been incredible."