How fourth-graders provided the spark for solar panels at Big Hollow campus

  • Big Hollow Middle School students Noelle Patrick, 13, of Ingleside and Meghan Klipstein, 13, of Lakemoor give the solar panels they helped bring to the district a ceremonial hug.

      Big Hollow Middle School students Noelle Patrick, 13, of Ingleside and Meghan Klipstein, 13, of Lakemoor give the solar panels they helped bring to the district a ceremonial hug. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Solar panels installed at Big Hollow Elementary School District 38 are expected to provide about 85% of the energy needed on the Ingleside campus.

      Solar panels installed at Big Hollow Elementary School District 38 are expected to provide about 85% of the energy needed on the Ingleside campus. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Solar panels have been installed at the Big Hollow Elementary School District 38 campus in Ingleside through a project that started with a pitch from fourth-graders to the district's school board. Officials say the panels will save the district about $90,000 a year.

      Solar panels have been installed at the Big Hollow Elementary School District 38 campus in Ingleside through a project that started with a pitch from fourth-graders to the district's school board. Officials say the panels will save the district about $90,000 a year. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

  • Big Hollow Elementary District 38 Superintendent Bob Gold with students Noelle Patrick, 13, of Ingleside and Meghan Klipstein, 13, of Lakemoor at the solar installation on campus set to go online in mid-March.

      Big Hollow Elementary District 38 Superintendent Bob Gold with students Noelle Patrick, 13, of Ingleside and Meghan Klipstein, 13, of Lakemoor at the solar installation on campus set to go online in mid-March. Mark Welsh | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 2/16/2020 9:55 PM

The installation of solar panels on the Big Hollow Elementary District 38 campus in Ingleside is a lesson in persistence prompted by fourth-graders.

Spread along the rolling terrain in two sections -- the smaller near the school bus parking lot and the larger on the west side of Wilson Road -- the panels will produce enough energy to cover about 85% of the district's power needs and save about $90,000 a year.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Construction began last fall, and the system will go live in mid-March. But the genesis came much earlier in the classroom.

"This was a cross-curricular venture between writing and science," fourth-grade teacher Andrea Woods says.

As part of that venture, students had to write a paper about why solar energy would be beneficial. The papers were compiled in a booklet, and the project culminated with a presentation to the school board.

"We said we wanted some solar panels," recalls Noelle Patrick, one of about a dozen fourth-graders who made the pitch.

The devices would save energy and money and help the environment, reasoned Noelle and others, who now are seventh-graders.

"What if? Why not?" said Deb Coolidge, another fourth-grade teacher involved in the project.

Superintendent Bob Gold already had considered the potential benefits of solar energy but found the cost of installing panels too high.

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"I couldn't find any way to make it work," he said. But he agreed to try again after the students' presentation.

"I had put it away. They forced me to continue to look into it," Gold explained.

When he did, he found that various federal, state and other incentives made the project affordable. With those, the equipment, design, installation, maintenance, insurance and repair all come no cost to Big Hollow.

Tax credits and other incentives also will cover about 75% of the costs for investors in the project, according to Kevin Moore of Griffith, Indiana-based Midwest Wind and Solar.

The other 25% percent will be covered by a 25-year power purchase agreement, which also is a money saver for the district. Gold said the power costs will drop from 6 cents per kilowatt hour to 2.5 cents.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The project consists of 952 solar modules on the west side of the campus near the school bus parking lot and 3,774 modules to the east along Wilson Road.

Together, they'll produce nearly 2.1 million kilowatt-hours of electricity each year. For perspective, in 2017, the average home used 10,399 kilowatt-hours, according to the U.S. Energy Information Institute.

Last week, Noelle and classmate Meghan Klipstein saw the installation up close for the first time.

"It's crazy. I didn't expect that much to happen," Meghan said. "Now that we actually have them, it's mind blowing."

A separate solar site to be used as an outdoor classroom also is planned, and data from the array will be incorporated in lessons.

"The kids did the hard work," Woods said. "Their interest, their questions, their inquisitiveness started this project."

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