Sakai Solar: To catch the sun

The sun was hanging low in the south Sunday afternoon as workers began lifting 30 gleaming solar panels onto the roof of Sakai Intermediate School.

The bright November day served as both a blessing for the contractors putting the final touches on the solar array and an inspiration for the Solar for Sakai project organizers watching from the ground.

“Today, if we were up and running, this would be perfect,” said Joe Deets, executive director of Community Energy Solutions, an island nonprofit group spearheading the solar project.

Since getting approval from the Bainbridge Island School District board in April, Community Energy Solutions and a partnership of educators and community members has been raising money to erect a solar array atop the broad roof of Sakai.

The 5.1-kilowatt array installed Sunday will meet roughly 2 percent of Sakai’s energy needs – but project organizers believe it will serve a broader purpose, as a catalyst for conversation about energy conservation.

“We know it’s not going to power the school,” Sakai fifth-grade teacher Todd Erler said. “But we hope that it gets kids and adults to think about how they use power.”

Erler, who helped launch the project, said students were excited to see the panels up when they came to school Monday morning.

Soon they will be able to keep tabs on the array at an information kiosk in the school’s library. The kiosk will be linked to the panels, and display live data on irradiance, the temperature of the solar cells, and how much electricity the panels are creating.

The read-out will even estimate the amount of carbon emissions it would take a fossil fuel-powered plant to produce the same amount of energy. The same data will be streamed to a Web site for the public to view.

As one of the only large photovoltaic installations west of Puget Sound, Deets said Sakai’s solar project could help dispel the notion that the region is too cloudy to make solar systems worthwhile.

“There frankly hasn’t been enough research done on how well solar systems work in our climate,” Deets said. “With the data we will be collecting, we’ll be able to answer that question.”

Once the array is tied into the school’s electrical system, the district will be eligible to receive 15 cents from PSE for every kilowatt-hour of energy the panels produce. Sakai will see modest savings on its roughly $40,000 yearly energy bill. The school district has agreed to invest those savings and incentives into energy conservation projects.

Sakai students are already looking for ways to save power and green-up their school.

An environmental leadership club has been investigating school-wide energy saving measures, including powering down computers and other electronics when they’re not in use. Students would like to eventually install a worm bin to compost food waste and bring local foods into the school.

In Erler’s classroom students realized they needed only two of the three banks of 32-watt light bulbs to be turned on during the day, and began leaving one bank switched off.

“It’s little things like that that really add up and get kids excited,” Erler said.

For the solar project, community support added up to its first tangible results Sunday.

Fund raising for the project was anchored by a grant from Puget Sound Energy and Bonneville Environmental Foundation for a 1.1 kilowatt solar array, the kiosk and the online display.

More than $30,000 was donated by individual community members and groups. Local companies helped out with donations of labor.

Creating a solar installation on a public building gives people the chance to take ownership in an alternative energy project, Deets said.

“A lot of people on the island want to go solar, but they are surrounded by trees or their house faces the wrong way, or maybe they don’t have enough money to put in a full system. But they can contribute to a community solar project,” Deets said.

The panels were installed by Randy Youngquist and Issac Morehouse of Solar Energy Services of Arlington, Wash., who drilled 84 holes through the roof of Sakai’s gym Saturday to secure the footings for the array.

Solar for Sakai organizers plan to continue fund raising, and hope to bring in another $50,000 to install a second 5 kilowatt array on the school by the end of 2009. The group hopes the project will blaze a trail for more community solar projects, which could fill empty roof space on other schools and public buildings with power-generating panels.

Puget Sound Energy spokesperson Andy Wappler said the Solar for Sakai project was one of the first community funded solar projects his company has seen in the region.

“This is really a unique and neat program that is happening out on Bainbridge,” he said.


For more information on the Solar for Sakai project see

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