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11/12/2002 02:37 PM     print story email story      

Chicago's Solar-Powered Schools

By Gabriela Martin and Mary O'Toole

Barbara Wood teaches renewable energy curriculum at the Reilly School.

It's Monday morning. A chatter-filled school bus waits as a sea of minivans funnels into an elementary school driveway. The children emerge with spelling words memorized and book reports in hand. But these children have a leg up on many of their peers. Along with traditional academic subjects, they are also getting a glimpse into the future - and they need look no further than their school's rooftop.

Many Chicago students are learning about the importance of solar energy through PV systems installed on their schools as a result of the Chicago Solar Schools Project. According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), U.S. schools spend about $6 billion each year to meet their energy needs.  Through energy-efficient renovations and technologies like PV, DOE estimates that schools can cut that cost by 25 percent.

The Chicago Solar Schools Project is part of the Chicago Solar Partnership, which promotes solar energy there. The Partnership aims to make Chicago Public Schools the nation's largest school-based solar network and a leader in environmental education.

The purpose of the school-based solar electric installations is to educate and raise awareness among schoolchildren about protecting our environment through the use of renewable energy. So far, eight Chicago elementary schools have a 10 kW (kilowatt) PV system on the roof. Through the partnership, the schools have developed an innovative curriculum that incorporates information about clean energy technologies into business, math and science lessons.

A Collaborative Effort
"The installation of PV systems in the schools allows the state to demonstrate the efficacy of actual solar electric production," says Henry Kurth of Illinois' Department of Commerce and Community Affairs (DCCA) State Energy Office.

Through its Renewable Energy Resources Program, DCCA provided 60 percent of the funding for the installations (up to $6 per watt). The Renewable Energy Resources Program encourages investment in and the development and use of renewable energy in Illinois. Rebates and grant funding are available for the full range of renewable energy technologies.

The City of Chicago and Commonwealth Edison (ComEd), the local utility, provided additional funding. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers provided technical expertise and licensed electricians with training in PV installation. Spire Solar Chicago handled the design, equipment sourcing and PV installation for the schools.

According to Mark Burger, Spire Sales Manager, each solar school currently saves between 11,000 - 12,000 kWh (kilowatt hours) each year.

Donald Barnes, energy manager of Chicago Public Schools (CPS) says the criteria for selecting each school included the orientation of the building and how easily PV could be installed. "Many of the buildings are close to or over 100 years old, so the stability of the structure was an important factor, he explained. "We also take great pride in the way trees add to the beauty of our buildings, but when trees grow over the roof, it doesn't lend well to the effectiveness of a solar system." Another criterion was the amount of interest a school expressed in integrating renewable energy education into their curriculum.

Award-Winning Curriculum
In 1999, the Frank W. Reilly Elementary School became Chicago's first solar school. An Internet-ready kiosk was installed in the lobby so students could monitor the amount of energy being produced by the panels.

Since then,  curriculum has been developed through a partnership with National Energy Education Development (NEED), a nonprofit that provides hands-on energy education and teacher training. Working with the DCCA and CPS, they created a comprehensive K-12 renewable energy education package.

The program teaches students about the economic and environmental advantages of solar energy. The curriculum fulfills the science education requirements set by CPS, the state and federal government. The NEED teacher training meets the Illinois Board of Education requirements for teacher professional development, giving teachers continuing-education credit toward re-certification.

Reilly students at every grade level develop solar projects. Sixth graders, for example, created miniature solar cars. Fifth graders baked cookies in solar ovens that they made from pizza boxes and tin foil.

One teacher helped a group of students start an after-school group called the Reilly Solar Corporation (RSC). RSC is a mock corporation that would sell the solar energy produced by the school's panels and reinvest the proceeds in the corporation's activities and in the renewable energy curriculum. RSC members learn how to calculate the amount of solar energy their school produces and how to determine how any excess energy might be used in the market.

Community Involvement
Reilly showcased RSC and other projects at its annual year-end "Solarbration Energy Fair." The event includes displays, solar sprint car races, games, songs and other activities. Solarbration has attracted support from DOE, ComEd, Chicago Department of the Environment, University of Missouri and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.

But do parents and neighbors support renewable energy education? "Absolutely," says Dan Lucas, former Reilly science teacher. " Over 1500 people attended the Solarbration. We had to block two streets surrounding the school to accommodate that many people."

The DOE has since produced a manual that shows how to do their own solarbration. For their work on the curriculum, NEED and the DCCA received the 2002 Instate Renewable Energy Council Innovation Award at the American Solar Energy Society's conference in Reno.

The Chicago Solar Partnership web site ( is designed as a resource for teachers and students. Through real time data display, schoolchildren can check the performance and avoided CO2 emissions for PV systems at several Chicago locations. There is also a renewable energy quiz and science curriculum topics and lessons.

The CPS plans to install Internet kiosks in some of the solar schools. Using real time technology, students will be able to see how their PV systems and those at other schools are performing. CPS hopes to have 20 PV systems installed by the end of 2003.

From the rooftop to the chalkboard, students are learning the significance of solar energy. It's an experience, Dan Lucas says, that has led to much success in the classroom. "Students have a more positive attitude. They get much more turned on to the subject. And for some it makes learning science and math fell less like a chore."

 Chicago Solar Partnership

 As communities seek cleaner energy solutions, they can face daunting barriers: high initial cost; permitting problems; visibility restrictions; utility interconnection restraints; or unfavorable perceptions about the technology. Strategic partnerships can be effective tools to streamline the process. 

The Chicago Solar Partnership, started over two years ago, brings together city and state government, labor and community organizations, and ComEd.  Its mission is to:

       leverage the strength of each member to maximize the number of solar  installations in the City of Chicago
       educate the public about PV
       provide information about local, state and federal incentives to purchase PV

The first hurdle in Chicago is a general perception that solar only works in the sunbelt. In reality, during the summer, Chicago gets more sun than Miami! 

Over 650 kW of PV capacity have been installed on the roofs of Chicago museums, schools, city and other public buildings. This includes systems on the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum of Natural History, the Casa Aztlan Community Center and ComEd facilities. 


Gabriela Martin is Manager of Environmental Commitments at Commonwealth Edison, and oversees renewable energy project development there. Mary O'Toole is Director of Environmental Strategy for ComEd.

FROM Solar Today (November/December, 2002), a Content Partner

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