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December 17, 2011

Renewable energy center unveiled at Albemarle middle school

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DailyProgressBy Kurt Walters
Charlottesville Tomorrow
Saturday, December 17, 2011

A cheering throng of Henley Middle School students gathered around a new 45-foot wind turbine Friday to witness a ribbon cutting and dedication of the school’s Renewable Energy Resource Center.

Student, staff and expert speakers all praised the new center as a source of clean energy and educational opportunities for students, with eighth grader Alex Kingsley calling it an “amazing addition to the school.”

“Enjoy it — it’s great to have these [energy] systems in the school,” said Richard Wright, director of business development at Baker Renewable Energy, the firm undertaking the project. “You’ll be able to generate your own power on site here from wind and from the sun.”

The renewable energy center will feature three different clean energy technologies: the wind turbine, 182 roof-mounted solar photovoltaic panels and six solar thermal collectors, which use the sun’s energy to heat water.

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Remy Pangle, from the Virginia Center for Wind Energy at James Madison University, explained to students that they will be able to look at real-time data from their renewable energy installations at a dashboard in the school’s lobby. The school will also have access to data from nearly 50 other wind turbines throughout the United States.

20111216-Henley2Renewable energy is already a component of the sixth grade curriculum at Henley, and University of Virginia students enrolled in professor Phoebe Crisman’s Global Sustainability class have been teaching Henley students about these alternative technologies during the center’s planning and construction phases.

The data from the renewable energy center will be used for real-world applications of math and science skills, echoing an educational focus that has been seen both nationally and elsewhere in Albemarle County, as evidenced by the Math, Engineering and Science Academy at Albemarle High School.

“Math and science can actually be fun,” said Jonathan Bartlett, a representative from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Wind and Water Power Program. “Hopefully some of you will end up moving into [careers in] renewable energy, be it solar, water, [or] wind.”

The original plan for the energy center included only the solar thermal installation, and would have been paid for entirely by fundraising.

Kingsley, who is the student government’s environmental secretary, explained that students and staff raised the initial $40,000 through a long series of small-scale fundraisers, from bake sales to art auctions.

“That was, like, seriously one cupcake at a time,” said Susan Guerrant, a librarian and Henley’s environmental coordinator. “We had a crazy amount of fundraisers — everybody chipped in.”

The project’s increased scope came after the school applied for and won an American Recovery and Reinvestment Act-funded grant of $211,000 from the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy. An additional $35,000 was added by ACPS.

Bartlett said that Henley’s new energy systems are part of a nationwide trend. American wind power, he said, has increased 16-fold since 2000 to 40,000 megawatts of capacity, enough to power 12 million homes.

As a demonstration project, the wind turbine and solar panels at Henley are at a much smaller scale. Jonathan Miles, director of the Virginia Center for Wind Energy, said after the dedication that most sites suitable for commercial-scale wind power in Virginia lie along mountain ridges or off the coast of the Atlantic Ocean.

“Offshore — that’s the future for large scale [wind power],” said Miles. “We [in Virginia] have arguably the best, or one of the best, offshore resources.”

In comparison, Wright said that Henley’s solar panels will generate around 46,000 kWh per year, the electricity needs of just over four American homes, according to U.S. Energy Information Agency data, with the wind turbine adding only a fraction of that due to its low height. The solar thermal system is projected to provide 60 percent of the school’s hot water needs.

Supervisor Ann H. Mallek, whose White Hall District includes Henley, attended the dedication and said in an interview that part of the reason for the low turbine height could be the county’s wind ordinance, passed in 2009. The ordinance aimed to allow test projects like the one at Henley, but only permits relatively low heights because of concerns about safety and noise, which she said was mainly an issue with older, loud turbines.

“We were stepping slowly and perhaps we were too restrictive,” stated Mallek. “Maybe this [turbine] is enough to show what they look like and people can listen to it with their own ears.”

The renewable energy center is scheduled to be fully completed and operational in January.

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