Pecatonica Middle School goes solar

1-kilowatt PV system gives community and students first-hand look at alternative energy

A local school has benefited from an Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation (ICECF) grant. Pecatonica Middle School has a 1-kilowatt, grid-connected photovoltaic system composed of six 167-watt Isofoton #TE167 panels. It was installed on the school roof by Dave Merrill (TRRT, March 26, 2003) during summer 2004.

The ICECF asked us to recommend schools to receive the systems. Since Pecatonica seventh and eighth grade science teacher Doug Kuban had shown a special interest in solar in all its forms as a student in our master’s degree program, we asked if he and his principal, Frances Fennell, would be interested. Of course, they were.

“I was always an advocate of solar power,” said Kuban. “I did labor (installing the system) for the in-kind contribution.”

An unexpected setback occurred almost immediately. Less than a month after installation, part of the school roof holding the PV system needed replacing, so Kuban and Fennel dismantled the system, set it aside, then re-assembled it after the roof had been repaired. Since the new roof was slightly pitched rather than flat, they recalculated positions and angles, made the necessary adjustments, and successfully completed the job.

Kuban monitors the system’s production and reports to his colleagues. During the summer months, he reports a full 1-kW output. In mid-December, despite the sun’s low level, the unit still produces half the maximum capacity, or 500 watts. The unit even produces at dusk!

According to Kuban, responses have been positive, especially in grades five through eight.

Fifth grade teachers felt their students needed more information. Student questions such as “Does it catch on fire?” revealed misperceptions that needed to be dispelled, so science faculty prepared an informational videotape for them. The tape helped clarify understandings of alternating current (AC), direct current (DC), the role of the inverter in changing DC to AC and the differences between series and parallel circuits. It also informed them that “we have something special here!”

Although there are no lessons or curricula to use with the system, Kuban will teach his eighth grade physical science classes an energy unit this winter. He also plans to hold a workshop to help fellow teachers better understand the system.

Eventually, all Pecatonica Middle School classes will have access to information generated by the system. Interactive programs will answer questions regarding how much electricity is being produced, how many classrooms are being run by it and how much coal or oil is being saved. Technical staff are working to make this happen.

In October, the school celebrated its new system with a kickoff day. Notables, including Rep. Jim Sacia, ComEd’s Paul Callighan, and ICECF School Projects Contractor Glen Kizer, all were on hand to help. The entire school was involved in the festivities. The eighth grade built a solar city similar to Soldiers’ Grove (which Kuban visited when a student in NIU’s Alternative Energy course, taught by Dr. Robert Vogl) demonstrating the many ways in which solar energy may be used for buildings. Seventh grade students prepared solar- and space-related games—either knockoffs of existing games or totally original—to help younger students learn. Kuban’s only regret is the lack of sun-related music playing in the background.

The Pecatonica PV system is gaining visibility. In addition to publicity generated by the kickoff day, parents attending a football game were curious about the installation. Other area schools have expressed interest in a system. School board members will be invited to visit the installation.

Kuban recommends solar installations for other schools: “. . . to show community and students that there are alternative forms of energy—to see it first-hand!”

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