Solar One Year Later

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By Tracy Wilson
Director of Admission & Marketing

A year ago, OVS environmental science teacher John Wickenhaeuser looked across the array of deep blue solar panels gleaming in the late morning sun at the Upper Campus and imagined the future cost savings and future lesson plans the new solar array would provide students across the grade levels. A year later the project has exceeded those expectations, generating 96% of the electricity at the high school campus.

It has also served as a learning lab, with third-graders discovering the science behind solar, and high school AP Environmental Science students advancing their understanding of alternative energy sources.

From statistics lessons to physics labs, the solar project was envisioned as just this — a combination of smart business practices as well as an educational tool for OVS students for years to come. Now, classroom studies include real-time monitoring of the energy produced by the 1,001 panels that now cover 19,016 square feet of hillsides and rooftops at the Upper Campus. After the first week of production last spring, Wickenhaeuser’s students had already calculated that the system had saved 11,974 lbs of carbon dioxide emissions, or about the weight of an African elephant. Since then, the system has saved nearly 150 tons of CO2 emissions, or roughly the weight of  30 full grown elephants.

“We’ve always been a progressive school, and we’ve always been about caring for the environment,”
Wickenhaeuser said. “This really demonstrates the school’s commitment to those principles.”

Across the nation, solar power has become a hot topic.

Photovoltaic power systems are proliferating in response to lower installation costs, incentives, and greater awareness. University researchers, most notably at several University of California campuses, are now developing new technologies to improve efficiency and storage of solar power, as well as more futuristic enterprises. UC Berkeley researchers and students, for example, are developing solar cars, while UCLA researchers are building solar cells with near transparency to create a solar panel that looks like a tinted window.

Similarly, Ojai Valley School leaders saw a bright future in solar – from both an educational and a business perspective.

The project was launched in 2013 in partnership with HelioPower and Southern California Edison. It cost $1.5 million, but the school spent much less after taking advantage of grants and rebates. At a time when energy costs are increasing in California – 12% in the last two years – the project also allowed the school to fix a portion of its energy costs.

The system was designed to supply 85% of the electrical demand for the OVS Upper Campus, saving more than $64,000 a year in energy costs and reducing the school’s annual carbon footprint by an estimated 299,000 pounds. In it’s first year it produced 18% more power than the design specification. With planned additional energy efficiency measures and greater conservation awareness, the school hopes to move close to 100% renewable energy in coming years.

“The solar project continues the school’s commitment to sustainability and preservation of our natural resources,” OVS President Michael J. Hall-Mounsey said. “The school has taken a bold step to reduce its environmental impact and demonstrate that sustainable practices will be a cornerstone of the school experience as we enter our second century.”

Located on 195 acres at the end of Reeves Road, the Upper Campus provides an ideal location for solar. In addition to its hilltop buildings, the campus has a wide south-facing slope to capture the sun’s rays. The slope must be cleared annually for fire protection so adding panels posed no disruption to native plants or wildlife.

Construction on the project began in October 2012 and finished in March 2013 with the addition of 288 rooftop panels on Burr Hall, the boys’ dormitories and the Head of School’s house, as well as 713 ground-mounted panels on the hillside between the boys’ dorms and the Lucila Arango Science and Technology Center. The system went “live” on May 7, 2013.

“We have the space, we have the land, we have the southern exposure so we could take advantage of that clean source of energy,” said Carl S. Cooper, Head of School at the Upper Campus. “At the same time, we are increasing our consciousness about where our energy comes from when we turn on a switch and turn off a switch.”

Ojai Valley School made a decision on the eve of its centennial, to create and chart a sustainability course for the next 100 years and beyond. Those efforts have received wide recognition, including the prestigious 2011 California Waste Reduction Award Program (WRAP) and the 2009 Ojai Chamber of Commerce “Environmentally Conscious Business of the Year” award.

In April 2013, the County of Ventura recognized OVS with a Climate Change Action Award, an honor given annually to individuals, businesses, schools, and other groups in the county that have made significant contributions to combat climate change.

The award recognized the solar project but also the broader effort by students, faculty and staff to reduce campus-wide electrical use and promote environmental stewardship. Those efforts include adopting comprehensive recycling programs and water-efficient irrigation systems, retrofitting lights with energy-efficient bulbs, and planting drought-tolerant and native plants on both campuses. The school also partners with local farmers, including Friends Ranch, to provide local produce in its dining halls.

“OVS has made sustainable practices a cornerstone of the school experience for students, teachers and staff,” said Mac Lojowsky, OVS Director of Facilities and Grounds. “It affects all aspects of their lives and by definition it will influence how they live their lives beyond the school.”

Most importantly, school leaders say, is the way Ojai Valley School incorporates environmental education into its curriculum – from earth science in pre-kindergarten to AP Environmental Science  – so students understand their role in preserving and protecting the planet.

“There is a constant message, going right on through from Pre-K to high school graduation, about how we take care of the planet,” Cooper said.

Raising students’ understanding of alternative energy sources is one aspect of the AP Environmental Science class. Wickenhaeuser’s students examine the economic, social, cultural, and political aspects of environmental science. This year, they will examine solar technology and the role alternative energy plays in communities locally and globally.

The monitoring tools at their fingertips include online monitoring and analysis tools report the production of each segment of the system in 5-minute increments. Students can see how production changes by the orientation of the individual solar arrays, the weather, and they can even see how a passing cloud temporarily decreases the system’s production. They can also compare energy output from various locations on campus.

Over the past year, Wickenhaeuser has checked the site frequently to track the school’s solar production. That is how he noticed one solar array on Tower dorm was producing less than those on the hillside and other rooftops in early July. Why? Morning and afternoon shade from trees near the dorm reduced production on those panels by 4 kilowatts per hour. That is not a significant amount. But it is the kind of real-life problem-solving exercise that he plans to have his students tackle.

For his part, Wickenhaeuser will continue be looking skyward.

“The funny thing is,” he said, “Now I am torn between rooting for much needed rain, and for sunny days!”

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