St. Johnsbury Academy Kicks Off Solar Electricity Curriculum with Installation on Danville Property

COURTESY PHOTO

SJA electricity students Billy Brink, left, and William Richmond, right, work to install a solar tracker on the Clement Dussault property in Danville.

As part of its environmental stewardship efforts, St. Johnsbury Academy has begun a grid-tie solar installation on the property of Clement Dussault (SJA Class of 1967) in Danville. The first two solar trackers were installed recently by SolarTech, owned by Rich Nichol of Sutton, with the assistance of the Academy's electricity students and faculty members Michael Bugbee and Jeremy Roberts. Dussault has committed to installing a total of 17 solar trackers over the next several years, which will eventually provide 175,000-kilowatt hours of electricity per year to the SJA campus through a group net-metered system.

Manufactured by AllSun Tracker, the solar trackers are a product of AllEarth Renewables, Inc. According to SolarTech's website, "An AllSun Tracker is an array of solar panels (either 20 or 24) mounted on a ground-mounted steel pole that moves with the sun as it crosses the sky. It is a dual-axis, active solar tracker that uses a motor and GPS (Global Positioning System) to turn the solar PV panels east to west and up and down. This movement keeps the solar panels perpendicular to the sun's rays, steadily in-line with the sun's position on the horizon every day, any time of the year. As a result, the amount of sunlight reaching the panels is maximized and electricity generation is greatly increased." These systems work well when roof-mount systems are impossible or when a large installation is planned, which is the case on the Dussault property. Solar trackers also convert an average of 30-40 percent more solar power than traditional stationary installations since they move with the sun using solar calculations and a GPS sensor, said Rich Nichol of SolarTech.

A grid-tie system allows solar power to feed into the electricity grid. Although the Academy's solar panels are located away from campus, the school will receive credits for all energy that feeds into the grid from the site in Danville. The grid-tie system is fairly simple. The components are detailed on the SolarTech website: "It is made up of solar modules, a mounting system, disconnect switches, metering, wiring, and an inverter. Solar modules produce direct current (DC) power. A home operates on alternating current (AC) power. The conversion is completed by the inverter. Power is controlled and back-fed by the inverter into a standard household service panel. The inverter typically carries a 10-year warranty. The solar modules are built to produce at least 80 percent of their rated power in 25 years. Solar electricity components produced today are efficient, durable, and reliable."

Nichol, who functions as both owner and installer for SolarTech, said that installing a solar tracker is "like putting together a big erector set." Academy electricity students, led by Billy Brink and William Richmond, worked on all aspects of the installation. Students used impact drivers, socket wrenches, and their standard electrical kits to help construct and connect the trackers, as well as helping with the excavation and back filling to attach each tracker to its 5000-pound concrete base. They spent two days on-site learning about all aspects of the installation.

As solar energy becomes part of St. Johnsbury Academy's stewardship plans, it will also become part of the school's curriculum. Senior Billy Brink's Capstone project, Creating Solar Installation Curriculum for the Electricity Class, explored putting solar installation curriculum in place at the Academy going forward. His curriculum is based on there being ample opportunity for hands-on learning with the annual installation of a solar tracker on the Dussault property. It will include information on the mechanical work that goes into the assembly of the trackers and the electrical work on the tracker itself as well as wiring it into the grid.

Brink's proposed curriculum is a two-week unit for Mike Bugbee's electricity class. The first week is a review of series and parallel circuits, site plans, and installation manuals for the solar trackers. The second week will be spent on-site at the Dussault property; the class will perform the actual installation over the course of the week, spending two hours at the site each day.

Another part of Billy's research focused on whether a solar installer is, in his words, "a financially-safe career." He found that entry-level solar installers earn between $14 and $20 per hour, which is similar to a newly licensed electrician. Solar salesmen who also work with installation earn $40-$75K per year, depending on their sales success.

Next year, Brink will be attending Vermont Technical College to pursue a career in Electrical Engineering. He feels that his experience in the Electricity classes at SJA have prepared him well for his future. He hopes to eventually work for TransCanada at Comerford Dam.

James Bentley, the Academy's director of Environmental Stewardship, said, "St. Johnsbury Academy is incredibly grateful to Clement Dussault and Rich Nichol of SolarTech for putting our students on the cutting edge of renewable energy development. This project will eventually power the school's entire central academic complex, including historic Colby and Fuller Halls, with solar power installed by our own students partnering with a local business." Bentley continued, "St. Johnsbury Academy is the first high school in the state to teach solar power by involving students in actual solar installation sites with real professionals."

The Academy's Environmental Stewardship Mission Statement reads in part, "As part of its mission to promote character, community and inquiry, St. Johnsbury Academy is committed to being a steward of the environment, both locally and globally. Environmental stewardship means that within all aspects of our institution, community members strive to make choices that reflect our commitment to the conservation of Earth's resources and our optimism regarding young people as leaders of a sustainable future." The planned solar installation at the Clement Dussault property responds to this mission in two distinct ways: it addresses short- and long-term energy conservation, and it also prepares Academy students for a career in the field of solar installation, so that they may act as "leaders of a sustainable future."

Academy Headmaster Tom Lovett said, "Clem's generosity is the epitome of our motto 'those who go before take care of those who come after.' He has provided a way to enhance our stewardship efforts as well as opportunities for 21st century electrical students."

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