Boulder Valley School District Shines in Solar-Powered Learning

Note: U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools recognizes schools, districts and postsecondary institutions that are 1) reducing environmental impact and costs; 2) improving health and wellness; and 3) teaching environmental education. To share innovative practices in these three ‘Pillars,’ the Department conducts an annual Green Strides Best Practices Tour of honorees.

Imagine a gymnasium filled with children eagerly raising their hands during a school-wide event when asked the question, “How is electricity at your school produced?” In many of the schools in Boulder Valley School District (BVSD), with our annual 300-plus days of Colorado sunshine, the answer to that question is an enthusiastic “SOLAR POWER!”

We were delighted to showcase our solar program during the 2014 Green Strides Best Practices Tour which visited BVSD Sept 17. Approximately 8 percent of our district-wide energy needs are met by solar, with panels on 28 of our 55 schools. By taking advantage of community partnerships, grants and bond money, we’ve been able to install solar power in schools across the district.

(Photo credit: Boulder Valley School District)

The growing dome greenhouse at Columbine Elementary. (Photo credit: Boulder Valley School District)

The Renew Our Schools Program, for example, helped support the installation of solar panels at Arapahoe Ridge High School and kick-started the creation of a Green Team, who we heard from on the first stop of the tour. This team led efforts to green the school, including competing in BVSD’s Energy Challenge, an effort to conserve energy through behavioral change among building occupants. While the solar panels help raise awareness about alternative energy and give students data to manipulate, student-led conservation measures, such as educating the school community about ways to save energy, auditing the school’s usage and taking follow up action on the findings, lead to even greater energy savings.

Additionally, a bond program in 2006 funded the solar panels and other green features at LEED Platinum Casey Middle School, which was also part of the tour. The solar panels double as cover for bike parking, offering shade and weather protection to the many students who bike to school year-round as part of the Alternative Transportation Program. Teachers at Casey incorporate live data from the Green Touch Screen and hosted Energy Days in which students learned about solar energy and baked cookies using a solar oven, among other interactive lessons. The sun not only provides clean electricity, but floods the school with natural daylight by design, so students and staff can be at their most productive.

During the tour’s stop at Columbine Elementary, before visiting the community supported gardens and growing dome greenhouse, we headed to the rooftop to see the roughly 100kW photovoltaic system. The system is part of a Power Purchase Agreement (PPA) BVSD signed with Solar City in June 2011. The 14 schools in the agreement have large-scale systems that provide an additional 1.4 MW of solar power for the district and 15 to 30 percent of each school’s electricity. All the schools in the PPA have websites showing live data from the solar panels and real-time energy consumption. These schools are using materials provided by the National Energy Education Development Project and Solar  City for lessons about renewable energy and efficiency, providing standards-based real life examples of sustainability, math and science.

The Sustainability Management System has guided this work, and the District has saved hundreds of thousands of dollars and has significantly reduced our environmental footprint. However, we see the real value from our sustainability efforts in educating our students and using these opportunities to prepare our students to be engaged environmental stewards and successful, life-long learners.

Dr. Ghita Carroll is Sustainability Coordinator at the Boulder Valley School District.