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Sun power lighting schools,
teaching students in Texas

Solar Schools

As the industries and population of Texas grow, the need for energy increases. In a state known for oil and gas, there is also an abundance of alternative energy sources, including renewable ones such as solar power.

"Texas ranks high in solar energy potential," says Pam Groce of the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO), a branch of the Comptroller's office. "Just ask any Texan on a hot July day. We might as well put it to work for us."

Sun power test drive
One of SECO's projects is Texas Solar for Schools, which is demonstrating how to use solar energy in 11 public schools across the state.

"The solar energy systems produce one kilowatt of power, which is enough to meet the power needs of one classroom, but energy savings isn't the goal," says Groce. "Our objective is to teach children, their parents and the community about the value of Texas' renewable energy resources--in this case, solar power."

SECO contracted with Conservation Services Group, Inc. (CSG), a private renewable energy consulting firm, to install the solar energy systems at all 11 schools for a total cost of about $200,000. The solar panels and accompanying hardware and software are configured to allow students to monitor how much energy is produced and chart it on a classroom computer.

Light bulbs on
"The children are so excited," says Pauline Walker, the science and technology coordinator at Austin's Maplewood Elementary, one of the schools chosen for a demonstration project. "They ask, 'Gee whiz, we're using energy from the sun to get electricity for the school?'"

SECO also provides teacher training at each school soon after the system is installed. The teachers at Maplewood received tips, materials and Internet links to other resources on how to teach the students about solar energy. Walker says the school hopes to reinforce these lessons later by helping the students make small solar racing cars and by using individual solar stoves to bake cookies.

"The program has been successful because the children now understand that we can use an energy source that does not harm the environment," says Walker.

SECO also helped set up a system at Eagle Pass High School in Eagle Pass.

"The students didn't think the system would work at first, but after we took a tour, they saw the panels generate current," says Sergio Escamilla, a physics teacher. "They will get a chance to see live what they are accustomed to just reading about. I think it will be easier for them to understand the concepts when they physically see the system operating."

Educational tools
SECO's Web site at www.infinitepower.org tells visitors how they can use renewable energy in their daily lives. The site provides a series of fact sheets on solar, wind and other power sources. SECO also distributes lessons plans to teachers for use in the classroom.

"We have posted the lesson plans on the Web, so teachers all over the state can take advantage of our research and information gathering," Groce says. "The project is geared to help the children and their parents learn how solar power can supplement traditional methods of energy generation throughout Texas."

Groce is also seeking additional funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and utility companies to expand the project and enable SECO to provide more demonstration projects in the future.

Pam Wagner