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MEC staffer helps Traverse City schools harness the sun for energy and education

Traverse City school solar array

Editor’s note: Kate Madigan is MEC’s northern Michigan representative and climate and energy specialist.

Today I joined northern Michigan community leaders and Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) officials in a gym with 200 cheering elementary students to celebrate the completion of the first solar array installed on a school in Traverse City.

The morning started with a ribbon-cutting ceremony in front of the 40 solar panels on the roof of Traverse Heights Elementary School that provide the school with sun-powered electricity, educational opportunities and much more.

“The solar panels are going to help fuel young minds and provide tangible ways to engage students in math and science, environmental stewardship and career exploration,” said Amy Six-King, principal of Traverse Heights Elementary School at the event. “We are appreciative of our community partners for their leadership in this effort, which provides our staff with a powerful tool to enhance teaching and learning.”

The leadership and can-do attitude of principal Six-King, who immediately saw the benefits to the school, were key to making this solar project happen.

This effort began more than a year ago when I got together with project leader Mary VanValin, a board member of the MEC member group Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities and a retired TCAPS teacher, to write a grant proposal to put solar panels on the school. We worked with the TCAPS leadership team to come up with a plan and we quickly raised all the funds needed for the solar project.

“Excitement about solar energy is contagious,” VanValin said. “When we started talking about the clean energy benefits of solar power and the hands-on educational and cost-saving possibilities it can provide to a school, the community support for this project went through the roof.”

Among the first donors to the project were the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians and the local electric utility Traverse City Light and Power (TCLP). There were also dozens of community members who donated to the project through the Jenny Payne Memorial Fund and support from the Hammersley Family Foundation. The project was funded entirely by donations, and also was supported by Cornerstone Architects and Nealis Engineering through in-kind contributions.

Principal Six-King addresses students

Traverse Heights Elementary Principal Amy Six-King addresses students at an assembly to celebrate the school's solar array.

For me, one of the best things about this project is how it brought together so many people in our community in support of clean energy. Being a part of a solar project from start to finish, seeing the benefits first-hand, and realizing how many others in our community are involved has created even more interest in clean energy projects in our region.

The Traverse Heights solar panels are expected to generate about 11,000 kilowatt hours of clean energy each year, almost enough to power two average Michigan homes. This will reduce carbon emissions by about 7.6 metric tons each year, equivalent to planting about 200 trees.

Students will be able to monitor the solar and electrical output on a screen installed in the main hallway, and Traverse Heights staff members have developed a curriculum to incorporate this into lessons in the classroom.

The electricity produced will feed into the grid through a net metering arrangement with TCLP, saving the district money in the form of a credit on its electricity bills. Thousands of schools around the nation have invested in solar arrays, some of them large enough to create significant savings on their utility bills, and the schools can use the savings to pay for things like teacher salaries and textbooks.

This project was the first of its kind for a school in the Traverse area, and was considered a pilot project for potentially more school clean energy projects in the future.

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