The solar panels at Hillhurst school were officially installed and announced on twitter Apr 29, 2022 after the previous school years grade 4-5 students took the initiative to be part of the ‘Solar for Schools’ project. PHOTO SUPPLIED: KARA LAYHER

Shauna Kelly was a student at Central Memorial High School in 2016, learning about environmental and energy topics then applying them to real world problems. 

She and Colin Charlton studied solar panels and used their findings to develop a plan to outfit local schools with solar arrays. Their project was presented at a virtual conference hosted by the Center for Global Education to a group that included the then-Premier Rachel Notley.

“I think a large driver for me and what also contributes to other work that I did in that class, was the recognition that there is a lack of climate, energy and environmental education in Alberta,” says Kelly.

Through solar panel projects like Kelly’s, more and more Calgary schools are working towards switching to renewable energy. Participants and teachers say such transitions have an effect energy savings and operational costs and also have a profound impact on student learning.

Renewable solar energy projects

Schools have approached renewable energy in different ways that have changed over time. 

“They’d start out as a very grassroots initiative or a school demonstrated interest and desire, or schools did a little bit of fundraising for a solar installation,” said Olafson when describing how the Calgary School Board of Education would get their renewable projects started 10 years ago.

Olena Olafson, the sustainability coordinator for the Calgary Board of Education, has witnessed many schools take on solar projects while in the role. PHOTO SUPPLIED: MAK Photography

Today, many schools in the CBE have incorporated solar panels into their design — some of these include Hillhurst, Dr. Freda Miller, William Aberhart, Chinook Park and Dr. E.W. Coffin. 

In the Calgary Catholic School District, students at Notre Dame High School, in Mike MacDonald’s pre-engineering class, also work on a variety of renewable energy projects. 

The first solar project MacConald’s students took on was a portable solar array in the beginning of 2020 but it was not completed until later due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“In the fall of 2020, I had a grade 11 class that had some really great students in it, and they took it on to finish it,” said MacDonald. “The reason why it’s portable is that we wanted to be able to move it around to test different areas, different sun, over the year.” 

His current students continue to work on different solar projects including a solar powered phone charging station. 

Impact on budget and energy savings 

Many schools receive grants to help with the installation costs associated with solar. 

Kelly’s project received one of these grants and other schools in Calgary have since applied to receive funds for their own projects. 

The School Climate Change Action Center is where schools within the CBE can apply to receive funding “to actually get solar panels installed on their roof and get students learning about it hands-on,” says Kelly.

The CBE has used those grants and others since to install solar panels on their schools. They also receive financial help from oil companies such as BP. 

Once the CBE has the funds secured for an energy project they analyze primary energy uses in its district as a means of identifying which project should be focused on next. 

“The way that you reduce emissions and save on energy is by looking at the building and how can you use less. So some of the upgrades that we’ve made over time in our buildings is just by being conscious of how much energy  we are using in the first place,” said Olafson. 

At Notre Dame, MacDonald’s student’s projects generate plenty of energy however they do not connect to the school’s power grid. An idea which could potentially result in major money and energy savings. 

“In the next five or ten years, I hope that we can build enough capacity that it will make sense to cover our roofs in solar panels, put wind turbines up and generate as much power as we can while we’re still learning about it,” said MacDonald.

Beyond the energy and financial aspects, solar energy can still impact the student experience.

Changing the student experience with solar 

By installing solar projects, schools offer a unique opportunity of learning for their students. 

As part of Kelly’s pitch— she and her partner proposed a learning framework for social studies and science in grades one through 12. 

Former Central Memorial High School student Shauna Kelly

“Students being able to see that there are solar panels on schools, it gets them starting to ask questions, ” says Kelly, “I think part of it is being aware that this is an option for places and for people.” 

“Conversations around climate change and how solar panels are one avenue for us to kind of mitigate that,” says Kelly. 

This was important to Kelly as she found a lack of teaching about renewable energy in schools. 

“We have teachers who are passionate and want to be teaching these things, but just lack the support, the resources, the time to do so,” says Kelly. “It’s the system that needs to change.”

Schools in the CBE with solar panels have since incorporated the technology into learning in different ways. 

“Some of our schools that have solar panels installed, as soon as the installation happens, they have access to a live web view where they can see the energy being generated on their roof,” says Olafson.

MacDonald says his students gain computer and building skills from designing their projects while also developing an awareness of renewable energy. 

“The actual skills that they get in this class are valuable but decreasing their fear of trying these [technologies] or engaging with them or going into them, I think is the big key.”

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