Let the sun shine at Sakai

The Locowski family spent a few hours recently at Battle Point Park while siblings Erin, 13 and Jake, 5, took up flying a shark kite. Despite challenging wind conditions, the shark did manage to catch some air for the maiden voyage. - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
The Locowski family spent a few hours recently at Battle Point Park while siblings Erin, 13 and Jake, 5, took up flying a shark kite. Despite challenging wind conditions, the shark did manage to catch some air for the maiden voyage.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

For years, teacher Todd Erler has seen the roof of Sakai Intermediate School as a vast, sunny swath of potential.

And now, beginning with Sakai, the 5th grade instructor and a like-minded group of islanders want to start measuring the roofs of public buildings not in square feet but in kilowatt hours.

“For about 10 years I’ve been trying to figure out how to get solar panels into schools,” Erler told the Bainbridge school board last week. “Every day when I come to work, I see a big roof, and I think, ‘What a great opportunity for us.’ But I’m also a teacher, so I know that schools don’t have the money for solar panels.”

Which is why Erler and the newly formed non-profit Community Energy Solutions — with the blessing of the Bainbridge School District — will turn to the community to fund a proposed 10-kilowatt solar array atop Sakai.

The group certainly believes an assemblage of panels on the school roof would be an environmentally friendly means of offsetting at least a fraction of the district’s energy costs and carbon footprint. More importantly, however, the array would be a very visible, very real tool for educating students and the community about the possibilities of renewable energy.

“With the solar panels, we think it will be a great way to tie our science program into everyday living,” Erler said.

It will begin with just one solar panel.

Puget Sound Energy recently awarded CES a grant to create a 1.1 kilowatt solar demonstration at Sakai. The grant — valued at about $20,000 — will supply the panel, inverter and other technology needed in the system, as well as professional installation and staff training to monitor the array.

Electricity generated by the panel will be flowed directly into the school’s power supply.

PSE will also provide a touch-screen display kiosk where students and visitors can see live statistics on how much energy the panel is creating. The same data will be uploaded to a website and shared with the public.

Redmond High School received a similar PSE grant and erected its 1.1 kilowatt solar system in 2006.

On an overcast Tuesday in Redmond, the school’s live solar Web site showed the panel’s electricity output was hovering at .29 kilowatts of electricity.

RHS teacher Mike Town said the demonstration has fit in well with the school’s broader curriculum.

“It’s an absolutely fantastic teaching tool,” he said.

Redmond High has a “Cool School Campaign” in which students have challenged teachers to reduce the carbon dioxide footprint of their classrooms by 2,000 pounds in 2008. The campaign earned Redmond students the President’s Environmental Youth Award this week.

The single solar panel at RHS has avoided the creation of an estimated 3,190 pounds of carbon dioxide since its installation (emissions that would have otherwise been generated in creating the electricity by conventional means), and Town said it has produced electricity equivalent to the needs of seven classrooms.

The panel also supplies Lake Washington School District with a $400 check each year in the form of rebate money PSE gives for green-energy production. Schools can earn up to $2,000 a year in green-energy rebates.

Town said the district was impressed enough by the demonstration that it is planning to fund an expansion to five or six kilowatts.

Sakai’s 1.1. kilowatt demonstration project could be up and generating juice by September, Erler said. Meanwhile, CES will begin chipping away at the $94,000 estimated cost of their proposed 10-kilowatt array.

The hardware of the demonstration unit will serve as a base that can be added onto, and panels could be plugged in one at a time as money becomes available.

Once installed, the system is easily cared for. The panels need to be cleaned occasionally but will last for decades.

“It’s a very simple system, very robust and there is very little maintenance,” said Michael Lichtenberger, a CES board member and partner in SunWind Concepts, a local renewable-energy company.

CES estimates that the 10-kilowatt array could meet about 5 percent of Sakai’s annual electricity use, enough to at least make a dent in its roughly $40,000-a-year PSE bill. The proposed array will cover only a small portion of the roof, and more panels could be added over time.

School board members agreed that the most value may come from the solar panels’ educational possibilities.

“It sounds like a science project in the making,” board member Patty Fielding said.

Sakai already has a strong environmental curriculum. Students tend to a salmon stream and PSE offers energy conservation workshops at the school.

Each year Sakai 5th grade students design self-sustaining, waste-free “biosphere” communities that could support 100 residents. Students focus on energy conservation and recycling, but the solar array will help illustrate the role renewable energy can play, Erler said.

“I want to be able to say to my students, here’s how much energy one panel creates, and here’s how much energy 10 solar panels can create,” he said. “So it will really tie in well.”

CES members told the school board that though the startup cost sounds high, they are confident that the community will support the idea of a public solar project.

Lichtenberger said many island residents live in the shade where a solar system just isn’t practical. But those same residents might find satisfaction in donating to a solar project at a publicly owned building like Sakai, where there is plenty of exposure.

“It would give people the opportunity to participate, without cutting their own trees down,” Lichtenberger said.

CES members don’t plan to stop with Sakai.

They see untapped potential on the vacant roofs of fire departments, park buildings and City Hall, and and hope schools will just be a start.

“A lot of the time people don’t start to make a change until they see something being done in their community or in their neighbor’s yard and they say, ‘Wow, this works, we can do this.’”

Box: See information and live statistics from the solar array at Redmond High School, and demonstrations at schools around the country at

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