Crozet school unveils $300,000 Renewable Energy Center

Support grew one cupcake sale at a time, and it culminated in a reworded Bob Dylan song in a Crozet gymnasium.

“How many times must a turbine turn,” sang the Henley Middle School choir, “to give us enough energy?”

Last Friday, Henley students, teachers and a throng of representatives from the U.S. Department of Energy and local government met outside the school to christen its Renewable Energy Center, funded in part by federal stimulus dollars.

Wheel in the sky keeps on turnin’! Henley Middle School’s new Renewable Energy Center includes more than 100 solar energy panels, a solar thermal collector, and the school’s new turbine, pictured above. (Photo by John Robinson)

Henley’s librarian and the project’s brainchild, Susan Guerrant, peered up at a 45′ high wind turbine and surveyed her giggling students, some donning Santa hats and reindeer antler headbands to celebrate the last school day before holiday break.
“It’s been pretty exciting to watch the kids respond,” said Guerrant, who was an English teacher for 12 years at Henley and has been its librarian for 13.

Later that day, in the school’s gym, Jonathan Bartlett, market development manager for the U.S. Department of Energy, followed the choir’s Dylan remix by plugging the value of careers in math and science.

“Hopefully some of you will move into renewable energy, be it solar, wind or water,” Bartlett said.

The idea for the center was hatched in 2007, when Guerrant and a group of Henley teachers decided to start raising money to install solar thermal panels that would further Henley’s focus on environmental studies.

“We thought this would be a great way to focus the kids’ energy,” said Guerrant, who also heads Henley’s Environmental Club. “As we look to the future, our finite resources will run out and we’ll put ourselves in interesting political situations because we depend on them now, so to use renewables is forward-thinking. It’s important to educate kids at this age about it, when they’re still thinking about careers and shaping their belief systems about the world.”

Through bake sales, a golf tournament, cereal box top collections and other small fundraisers, the school made steady strides toward its fundraising goal. Then, Lindsay Snoddy, Environmental Compliance Manager for the Albemarle school division, entered the fray. Snoddy spotted a chance to expand Guerrant’s vision and applied for a grant sponsored by the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

“Based on what Henley was already doing, it just seemed like a natural fit,” Snoddy said. The grant’s funders agreed, and awarded Henley $211,000. The center also used $40,000 raised by Henley and $35,000 from the Albemarle school division.

The Renewable Energy Center has four facets: the wind turbine, more than 100 solar energy panels that blanket Henley’s roof, a solar thermal collector that will warm about 60 percent of Henley’s hot water, and a Web-based tracking system that will broadcast the school’s renewable energy output on a TV monitor in the school’s lobby. The tracking system is the same one used by almost 50 other wind turbines throughout the U.S., so students can compare a trove of data and glean meaning from it.

When Henley’s center is fully functional in January, it will account for 6 percent of the school building’s annual energy usage.

In addition to its practical energy uses, the center has also been a way for math and science teachers to connect their lessons to a tangible, real-world project. Renewable energy is already part of Virginia’s sixth grade Standards of Learning science curriculum, but Henley teacher Leslie Kenner said the center will allow her students to slip into the shoes of scientists, engineers, economists, and policymakers.

“They take energy for granted,” Kenner said. “They flick on a light switch or plug in their iPods and don’t think twice about it. We were able to give them mini solar panels and examine the inside of them to see how it generates energy. We hope this center will make it more relevant for them.”