GSCD solar farm saves money, reduces CO2, and, a teacher says, brings learning alive, engenders pride

— Photo from the Guilderland Central School District

Celebration Day: A ribbon-cutting ceremony was held in May for the 22-acre solar site on Becker Road near Altamont. The system, built by ForeFront Power, went online in January. Elementary and middle school students were among the celebrants.

GUILDERLAND — A solar farm that went online in January is expected to offset 58 percent of the Guilderland School District’s annual energy consumption, reducing operating expenses by $4.5 million over the next 20 years.

The array is also being used as a teaching tool.

Stacey Haas, a science teacher at Guilderland High School, introduced a new course last year, Clean Energy Technologies, which this year used the solar array.

“The district has access to monitoring software,” she said, from the solar farm. “So you can see, hour by hour, how much power we are getting. Students are getting real-time data.”

Haas might ask her students, for example, to come up with a hypothesis for why, if the sun is out from 6 a.m. to noon and you would expect the power to be the same, you can see, instead, the amount of power has increased.

The correct hypothesis draws on what students may have learned in their earth-science course: The angle of the sun changes the amount of power generated.

“In Clean Energy, we draw on concepts from earth science, physics — and how solar power works is a chemistry problem,” said Haas.

Haas describes herself as “a huge puzzle person.” She has always liked science; she majored in biology with a concentration in education at the University at Albany. Her job combines her passions for teaching and hands-on learning — “figuring things out,” as she puts it.

This is her 13th year at Guilderland. “Every day and every class is different,” she said.

The course she launched last year has a two-fold purpose: teaching about renewable energies, and taking a global perspective.

Haas, who got a fellowship that allowed her to teach in Morocco, in North Africa, wants her students to think globally about clean-energy use, and to see both what the United States is doing as well as what other countries are doing.

Over the last few years, Guilderland High School — in addition to teaching the standard courses in earth science, biology, chemistry, and physics — has added a number of electives: nursing, pharmaceuticals, physical therapy, bio technology, meteorology, and astronomy among them.

In addition to teaching the clean-energies course, Haas, whose mainstay is chemistry, also teaches the bio-tech course and next year will teach a course in bioethics.

Many of the new courses, she said, are geared to preparing students for employment options in the Capital District. These courses, Haas said, also help students to see the relevance of science.

Her Clean Energy course this term has nine students, ranging from sophomores — one taking chemistry; another, earth science — to seniors, some of whom are taking college-level physics. The students work together to solve problems.

Two of her students are females; seven are males. “I do envision myself as a role model, encouraging females into science,” Haas said when asked about it. “They can do it.”

She concluded that using data from the district’s new solar farm is “a way to bring learning alive.”

Haas also said that students knowing their school is using solar can engender “a sense of pride in things we’re able to do to just be better.”


GCSD solar

Solar is not new for the Guilderland School District.

In 2011, the district installed 70 panels on the roof of Farnsworth Middle School which, according to Neil Sanders, Guilderland’s assistant superintendent for business, have generated 60,000 kilowatt hours since December of that year, and 208 panels on the roof of Guilderland High School, which have generated about 262,000 kilowatt hours since April 2011.

The district had attempted to set up a solar farm before. “It turned out to be an issue where it was located,” said Sanders. Guilderland’s original plan was for a solar farm outside the school district boundaries, which the State Education Department wouldn’t allow, said Sanders, because the property-tax exemption would affect another school district.

Referring to Clifford Nooney, the school district’s energy manager and director of facilities, Sanders said, “Mr. Nooney knew some farmers in the area and reached out.”

Installation of the solar array on Becker Road on the outskirts of Altamont stirred no controversy. ForeFront Power built the array on a 22-acre site.

“It’s on relatively remote farmland,” said Sanders. “It sits on a hill. You can’t see it from the road … Trees surround it.”

The district’s contract is for 20 years, Sanders said.

“We don’t lease the land; that’s the solar company,” he said. “We put the company in touch with the property owner.”

As of June 5, the Becker Road Solar Farm, which went online Jan. 16, has produced 1,227,815 kilowatt hours, Sanders reported.

“The system does not directly offset our consumption,” he explained in an email to The Enterprise. “The solar farm generates electricity that goes back on the National Grid system. The district is then credited for the amount of electricity it is supplying.

“In other words, while our energy consumption doesn’t change, we do receive credits for the energy we are producing.”

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