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SOLAR KICKOFF at East Chapel Hill High
Under a sunny sky on the freshman hill at East Chapel Hill High, students gathered to celebrate the hard work and risk-taking by four of their fellow Wildcats. The Solar Kickoff on Wednesday, September 13 represented the official announcement of a Duke Energy Carolinas/NC GreenPower Schools Going Solar grant to install solar panels at the school. The award also includes monitoring equipment, training for teachers and a curriculum for students.
“The kickoff was both a culmination, celebrating the work of Megan, Emily, Connor, Michael and the Solar Panel Project participants, and also just the beginning of moving towards a renewable energy future at East and CHCCS,” said Dan Schnitzer, District Sustainability Coordinator.
The grant application was competitive. More than three dozen schools sought the grants; East Chapel Hill High was one of seven winning schools. “The students have led the charge from day one,” Schnitzer said, “finding the grant, organizing themselves, showing up, working hard and not being deterred or distracted.”
The four students came together during the spring of 2016. Emily Liu and Megan Doherty had participated in UNC’s Institute for the Environment program Climate LEAP where they first discussed sustainability with CHCCS school board member Annetta Streater. Connor Diaz and Michael Swers were members of Eastainability, an East club who joined forces with Liu and Doherty to create the Solar Panel Project. As Doherty said to the kickoff audience, “We were a small club with huge dreams.”
Streater, who also spoke at the kickoff event, directed the students to Schnitzer. He first asked the students to conduct an energy audit at ECHHS and then shepherded the grant-writing project to its completion. He claimed he had little more to do with the grant application than checking for grammar and providing the tax ID number, but the students laughed at their mentor’s modesty. “He gave us energy and motivation,” Doherty said. They had reviewed examples of professional grant proposals, but Schnitzer encouraged them to look at well-written student proposals as models. “He was so knowledgeable about how to write grants.”
Once the panels are installed in 2018, students will be able to monitor energy production and consumption at East, gathering real-time input data. Representing Duke Energy, district manager Indira Everett congratulated the project participants, and shared news about the expansion of renewable resources in North Carolina. The state currently ranks second in solar energy installations, after California, and Duke Energy has invested over five billion dollars in solar and wind projects.
Vicky McCann, vice-president of NC GreenPower, shared her excitement about the impact their nonprofit can have on North Carolina schools and students who use the technology. NC GreenPower piloted a Solar Schools program in 2015 and collaborates with Duke Energy to provide the grants and panel installations.
Superintendent Dr. Pam Baldwin said that when she was a science teacher, this was the kind of experience she longed for her students to have every day. Learning from the sustainability initiative will be “relevant, engaging and fun,” she said. “Too often What If’s prevent us from doing what is truly amazing.”
“This project has definitely influenced my college field of study,” said Liu. “I want to go into environmental science and the STEM field.”
“Thank you for setting the bar,” Mayor Pam Hemminger said to the four students. "This is truly a great example of our young people leading the way toward a renewable energy platform for our community."
The students said they hope that the solar panels will provide a model of sustainability for CHCCS and the community, and show that youth voices can and will be heard. As one of them noted, every time future students walk by the panels, hopefully they’ll think about what they can accomplish.
“They embody the mindset of creating the change they want to see,” Schnitzer said. “I’m extremely proud to have worked with these students and the staff throughout the school and district that supported this project.”