MT schools vie for solar power 

Schools throughout Montana will soon be competing for the opportunity to install solar electric, or PV, systems in their buildings, enabling them to generate part of their power directly from the sun.

The Sun4 Schools Project, created by the non-profit National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and funded through the Montana Power Company (MPC), will install a three- to four-kilowatt solar electric system in six Montana middle or high schools statewide. A four-kilowatt PV system generates about 6,500 kilowatt-hours of electricity annually, enough to run an average household for about eight months.

The project is the first solar-generating project of its kind in Montana’s middle and high schools, according to Cathlene Svejkovsky, who is heading up the project for NCAT. While it will help reduce energy costs for each of the schools selected, Svejkovsky notes that is not the project’s primary goal.

“The focus of the project really is to combine a solar energy demonstration with energy education,” she says. “The students are certainly going to benefit through the curriculum that they’ll apply in the classroom. But also it shows them how these [systems] work, and we’re hoping that it’ll take away some of the market barriers that prevent solar [energy] from being more widely used in Montana.”

Svejkovsky says that schools applying for the project must be in MPC’s service area (as are all Missoula-area schools) and will be judged based on their willingness to use the system as an educational project for the school and the community at large. The project’s alternative energy curriculum will be available to other schools as well.

Sun4Schools is being paid for by MPC’s Universal Systems Benefits Charge (USBC) fund. The USBC fund was created in 1997 by the Montana Legislature and requires MPC and other utilities to put a certain percentage of their income into a fund that promotes renewable energy and conservation projects. 1999 was the first year that Montana Power Company (MPC) began using USBC funds.

The six schools selected will remain connected to the existing utility grid for their remaining electricity needs. Students and teachers will also be able to monitor their system’s performance via the Internet, and even take advantage of MPC’s “net metering” program, which allows surplus electricity to be fed back into the power grid, in effect running the school’s utility meter backwards.

The six selected schools will be notified by March 30. Applications can be received by calling NCAT at 494-8667.

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