Sanders touts funds for solar in schools (Brattleboro Reformer)

By Howard Weiss-Tisman, Reformer Staff

BRATTLEBORO -- The Vermont Department of Education wants to start training the next generation of solar power consumers and technicians.

The department this week announced its Solar in Schools Initiative, which will pay for low-power solar photovoltaic systems for up to 10 schools around the state.

Sen. Bernard Sanders, I-Vt., secured the funding through the Department of Energy and the grants should pay for most of the equipment and labor to get the solar cells up and running on school rooftops.

Instead of considering proposals on the merits of energy production, the Department of Education will award the money on the strength of the educational programs that the schools develop to engage students in the installation and monitoring of the solar systems.

Sanders said he wanted to begin the pilot educational program in Vermont to better prepare the state for its move toward more reliance on sustainable energy.

"I think this program has huge consequences for Vermont and for the nation," Sanders said. "Our goal is to quickly change our nation's energy dependence on fossil fuels and in the process create jobs."

Sanders said he supported the program to help schools lower their utility bills, but he said the educational benefits will have an even greater impact on the state's future.

Schools will be awarded up to $50,000, which should cover most of the costs of the solar installation.

But it will be up to the schools to develop the lesson plans and curriculum to engage the teachers and students in the project.

According to Sanders, elementary schools, middle and high schools and technical centers would be considered for the federal grants.

"We want to expose kids to sustainable energy in their schools," said Sanders. "And it's not just kids. It's also the rest of the community who will be able to see that solar power can work here in Vermont. This is a way to start job training for green jobs."

"The objective of this program is to teach a whole lot of people about the potential of solar energy," said Cathy Hilgendorf, school construction coordinator for the Vermont Department of Education. "We are looking to make a strong link between construction, installation and work force development and educational programs."

Hilgendorf said the solar systems would only generate about 5 kilowatts of power at each site, so the focus of the program will not be entirely on the amount of green power that is added to the grid.

She said the Department of Education is more excited about the potential of reaching school-age children as the demand for green jobs increases across the state.

The money is not part of the stimulus plan. Sanders helped secure the funding in the 2010 budget.

Details on the application process will be released in the fall and the $500,000, which will be divided among eight to 10 schools, could be awarded as early as the end of 2009.

The grant awards will be determined by how science and math teachers develop programs based on the solar technology.

Hilgendorf usually helps school boards through the building construction process. She said the Solar in Schools Initiative is a way for her office to work with educational leaders within the education department.

Science and math assessment staff will help determine which schools receive the federal grants.

Hilgendorf sent letters out to school districts in the state last week to get administrators thinking about the program before the school year ends.

"As green technologies become more commonplace, we will need more people who know how to work on them," said Hilgendorf. "There is very valuable potential here for career development."