Solar Panels Power New Schools—and New Ways Of Learning
A view of the 1,700 solar panels on the roof of Discovery Elementary School in Arlington, Virginia. Over the course of the year, these panels provide more than enough energy to power the school.
CHRIS BERDIK FOR THE HECHINGER REPORT
DRESSED IN PASTEL pink and green for an early spring day, second-grader Katherine Cribbs was learning about energy on a virtual field trip—to her own school.
With a flurry of touch-screen taps, she explored the “energy dashboard” of Discovery Elementary in Arlington, Virginia. On her tablet, she swiped through 360-degree views of her school, inside and out. She clicked on icons embedded in the virtual classroom to learn about energy-saving features such as LED lightsand super-insulated exterior walls made of concrete-filled foam blocks. Exploring the virtual school kitchen, she could read about how the lack of a deep fryer means less energy is needed for venting grease from the air. Another swipe whisked her up to the school’s roof, where about 1,700 solar panels spread out before her.
In addition to this virtual tour, Discovery’s dashboard displays, in real time, the school’s energy generation. And in colorful bar graphs and pie charts, it also tracks energy use—broken down by lighting, plug load, kitchen, and HVAC. The tally reveals that Discovery generates more energy through its solar array than it uses over the course of the year.
Buildings that make at least as much energy as they use are called “net-zero” (and “net positive” if they make more than they need). And nationwide, K-12 schools are leading a fledgling “net-zero” building boom that has grown from a few proof-of-concept structures a decade ago to hundreds of buildings completed or under-construction.
Dozens of these ultra-green schools are going up in every sort of district—urban and rural, affluent and lower income, blue state and red state. Much of the advocacy for net-zero buildings has focused on environmental and economic incentives. K-12 schools run up a $6 billion annual energy tab every year, the Department of Energy reports—more than they spend on textbooks and computers combined, and second only to the cost of teacher salaries. But the K-12 schools leading the net-zero charge are uncovering major educational benefits as well.
Bridges’ students also looked for patterns of electricity use and tried to deduce why it was so much heavier on Saturdays than Sundays or why it spiked at 5 AM. “I didn’t give them energy-dashboard tests, because that’s not what we’re after,” said Bridges. “My goal as a teacher is to grow good critical thinkers, and I think the energy dashboard opens their eyes to something most people don’t think too much about.”
Still, Discovery’s teachers do need to cover the Virginia state learning standards, and matching these standards with dashboard lessons can be tricky. At one point, third graders were set to learn graphing with the school’s daily energy tally, but the plan was scrapped because the dashboard gives that data in bar graphs. Virginia’s third-grade standards call for using line graphs to track change over time.
Besides aligning with state standards, Discovery teachers must also contend with the dashboard’s occasional technical glitches—it tends to conk out due to server strain if too many kids are working on it. So teachers usually have students team up or rotate so one group hops on the dashboard while the rest of the class works on other tasks. Or they simply distribute screen grabs of dashboard data.
The authenticity of these lessons is reinforced by a schoolwide focus on sustainability. In lieu of a school council, Discovery has an Eco-Action club whose members do annual audits of the school’s energy use, trash, food waste, water consumption, and other metrics. They did the school energy audit early in the school year, explained a fifth-grade Eco-Action member named Charlie Dantzker. “Basically, we walked into every classroom, counted the lights, checked to see what was plugged in, and looked for vampires,” Dantzker said. A vampire, he explained, is a device that draws power even when it’s turned off but still plugged into the wall.
But the students didn’t find a lot of waste in the audit: Discovery is already ultra-energy efficient. The school’s “energy use index,” a measure of power use per square foot, is about a third of the average for district elementary schools. The district plans to build on that success.