Sixth-graders learn about renewable energy systems

Sixth-grade students visit the home of Kathy and Kent Lawrence. (Photo provided)

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

When Kathy Lawrence learned that the Oregon, Ill., schools were including renewable energy in their curriculum, she contacted them with an offer to visit their home and learn about their systems and suggested they also visit the home of Bob and Sonia Vogl. She and sixth-grade teacher, Nate Rogers scheduled the trip and on Oct. 11-12, Oregon sixth-graders led by by Rogers, Mike Ellis, Lisa Heal and Jennifer Youngren visited the homes to learn firsthand about renewable energy, especially solar electricity. Both Kathy and Kent Lawrence and Sonia and Lin Vogl led the tours.

Both homes have solar electric systems and a Bergey wind generator. Students learned the differences between amorphous (without form) and polycrystalline (small crystals that sparkle in the sunlight) panels.

At both sites, the students viewed the solar panels, learned that the job of an inverter is to convert DC power to AC to use in a home with excess electricity sold back to the grid. They were amazed by the thought that some of the electrons powered by the Lawrence and Vogl systems might be flowing through their homes as they spoke.

The Lawrence home also has super insulation and a trombe wall that absorbs heat during the day and releases it at night. The Lawrences discussed the bamboo floors, took the students to the porch to discuss the recycled decking and outdoor furniture, and showed them the blown-in insulation on the basement ceiling. The electrical grid and the “three Rs” were stressed.

The Vogl site includes a hoop house, greenhouse, vegetable gardens and animals — chickens, ducks, alpacas and a horse, which was probably the highlight of the visit. The Vogls explained they are trying to live sustainably and raise chickens and ducks without hormones or drugs for their eggs and alpacas for their fine fiber.

They discussed their vegetable gardening and let students enter the hoop house to experience its heat-holding capacity. “Wow — it’s hot — it must be 100!” With no heat added, hardy vegetables grow and are harvested through the winter.

Stand-alone solar panels on the super-insulated greenhouse power red and blue LED grow lights, which encourage plant growth better than do fluorescent or standard LED lights. Phase change materials, which melt when warmed and solidify when cooled, slowly release heat to the building after sunset.

Students compared the materials to the Lawrences’ trombe wall. The small square bubbles, filled with a mixture of soy and palm oil, were a hit with students who enjoyed feeling their resilient squishiness.

A solar cooker in which Lin had chili simmering was probably the most popular renewable energy item. It can reduce the demand for firewood and the exposure of women in developing countries to smoke from open fire cooking.

The students courteously thanked their hosts. Later this semester, they will study solar electricity. We hope these enjoyable visits will make the concepts come alive for them.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail

From the Oct. 24-30, 2012, issue

Enjoy The Rock River Times? Help spread the word!