Vast expanses of the roofs on two Libertyville Elementary District 70 schools will be equipped this summer to harvest the sun for power in what is considered a large investment in solar energy.
Hundreds of individual panels will be installed at Butterfield and Highland Middle schools to produce the equivalent of about one-third of each building's energy needs in a $3.2 million project.
Each building will have about 40,000 square feet of panels installed on the roofs, ranking District 70 tops among school districts in the state in terms of solar capacity, according to district officials.
Besides producing about a third of the power used at each school, the installation, which is backed by $1.8 million in grants from the private Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation, is regarded as a tool to teach students about renewable energy and a way to reduce District 70's carbon footprint.
"This is the biggest educational installation in the state of Illinois. I think it's probably one of the biggest in the Midwest," said Dave Wilms, a retired teacher of advanced placement environmental sciences at Stevenson High School.
The Libertyville resident also served as the school's sustainability coordinator and as the owner of Advance Renewables Sustainability Consulting, helped land the grant and will fashion a curriculum for the 2014-15 school year.
"You can take the concept of energy and not just talk about it in science," he said.
District 70 will pay for the projects up front and collect the $1.8 million in grant money once they are verified as complete. The district will spend $720,000 at each school from working cash to cover the difference. But it expects to recover that outlay through energy savings estimated at $90,000 per year. Wilms said each school will save more than $1 million in electricity costs over the life of the systems.
Both schools had 14-foot high solar panels placed outside the buildings five years ago when the roofs were replaced. The panels are linked to a website and students can study, graph and learn about the energy produced. Superintendent Guy Schumacher said the district always has looked at ways to cut costs and go green when possible.
"This was a chance to look at a big project with a big opportunity," he said.
He noted Butterfield, which uses all electric for power, is 75,000 square feet, and Highland Middle is 140,000 square feet.
"That's a substantial size so we can make a big difference." Schumacher said.
District 70 started talking about the solar panels at the end of February.
The Illinois clean Energy Community Foundation said during the current grant cycle, it received more requests for photovoltaic projects than it could support.
However, "the Foundation is pleased to see large-scale PV projects being installed in schools, where they will generate significant savings and allow students to learn firsthand about renewable energy," Gabriela Martin, program officer for the organization, said in a school district release on the grants.