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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Solar installations will help students learn, cut utilitiy bills at two high schools

Solar Initiative

Impacting the environment, promoting knowledge and skills in the classroom, and cutting cost

An unexpected result of a lawsuit by environmentalists to cut industrial air pollution went on public display this week - a trio of solar-power installations at two high schools, which the Houston Advanced Research Center (HARC) was instrumental in planning and constructing.

The installations at Sam Rayburn High School in Pasadena and South Houston High School in the city of South Houston will serve as a solar-energy laboratory for students while they cut the Pasadena Independent School District’s electricity costs.

HARC teamed with the district and a Houston-based company, Ignite Solar, on the project, which is formally known as the Pasadena ISD Solar Initiative. It was funded with $2 million from a $5.8-million civil penalty paid by Shell Oil to settle a Clean Air Act lawsuit by two Austin-based organizations, the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter and Environment Texas. The two environmental advocacy groups had alleged illegal pollutant emissions at Shell’s Deer Park oil refinery and chemical plant near Pasadena.

The completion of construction of the solar project - which received additional funding from the State Energy Conservation Office - was celebrated Feb. 15 at a ceremony at Sam Rayburn High School.

"We are excited to be part of this multifaceted project and look forward to sharing all aspects with the community as we continue to develop educational and outreach activities," said Lizabeth Price, a research associate at HARC who has served as project manager for the Solar Initiative.

(HARC’s other varied activities advancing clean energy also include its management of the Solar Houston Initiative for the city of Houston.)

"Maximizing learning opportunities"

Kirk Lewis, superintendent of the Pasadena district, said its administration and staff are adding instruction about solar-energy technologies to their curriculum, which is expected to help students "succeed in today’s global society."

Lewis added: "The knowledge and skills students will gain through these experiences will lead to more career pathways and provide move advanced learning opportunities."

Grace Blasingame, science content specialist for the Pasadena district, said its students "will perform real-world experiments with the data that we collect from the solar arrays. I know of no other district that is providing this type of experience."

Ignite Solar "designed the (solar) system with students in mind, maximizing learning opportunities and providing meaningful examples to assist in the promotion of solar development in the Houston environment," said Peter Mathey, the company’s chief executive and president.

Students at Sam Rayburn and South Houston will work beside engineers and scientists to learn about solar technologies that the Pasadena project is introducing to the Houston region. Instructional aids will include a solar learning lab, educational kiosks and portable demonstration units at each campus.

The solar arrays at the two high schools include three different technologies. Combined, they comprise one of the Houston area’s largest solar projects and one of the biggest in any Texas public-school system. In addition to the project’s educational value, it is estimated that it will generate about 145 kilowatts of electricity, saving the Pasadena district about $15,000 a year on its utility bills.

Air pollution connection

Ken Kramer, director of the Sierra Club’s Lone Star Chapter, said the completion of the Pasadena solar installations "speaks both to cleaning up our air and stretching our education dollars. The use of solar energy avoids the serious pollution and public health impacts of powering our society through the burning of dirtier fuels such as coal and (oil from) tar sands."

Kramer said he wished that the Sierra Club and Environment Texas had not felt compelled to file their lawsuit against Shell "to do the job that state environmental officials ought to be doing themselves to clean up our air and protect the health of our citizens. But my organization is pleased that our citizen enforcement action in this case has had benefits far beyond the direct reductions in air emissions that are resulting from that settlement."

When Shell settled the litigation in 2009, the two environmental groups said they believed the $5.8-million civil penalty for pollution violations at the Deer Park complex was the largest ever to result from a citizen lawsuit under the Clean Air Act in Texas history.

The environmental groups said the entire $5.8-million penalty - including $2 million dedicated to the Pasadena solar project - "will be used to fund environmental, public health and education projects in Harris County, including a project to reduce diesel emissions from school buses."

Shell also agreed in the settlement to slash its Deer Park plants’ emissions of air pollutants in non-routine events, such as equipment malfunctions by 80 percent. The company also agreed to carry out upgrades that would cut the overall emissions at its Deer Park complex of smog-forming chemicals, sulfur dioxide and other air pollutants.