A Sun-Powered Campus

In the face of climate change and energy challenges, what creative ways are you finding to forge healthy and durable lives and communities? Send submissions — five hundred words or fewer — to Orion, 187 Main Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, or via e-mail to [email protected] Submissions become property of Orion.

Every year since our pilot project in 2003–2004, Midland School’s sophomore classes have learned the science of a finite and polluting fossil fuel–based economy, learned how solar panels work, and then helped install a three-kilowatt photovoltaic (PV) system that meets 3–4 percent of the campus’s electricity needs and annually prevents the emissions of several tons of carbon dioxide. By 2007, our solar arrays totaled ten kilowatts and met 10 percent of our campus electricity needs.

Guided by an environmental action plan, and alongside energy-conservation strategies, Midland intends to install a renewable energy system with successive sophomore classes until much or most of the campus is powered by the sun. Two $10,000 “A+ for Energy” grants from BP provided the seed money to help us realize this dream. We have chosen increments of three kilowatts because it’s affordable on an annual basis and because an array this size could power a reasonably energy-efficient household. Also, the incremental approach involves all our students in a way that purchasing a single large array couldn’t. Midland students can speak passionately and intelligently about the value of renewable energy because they use their own minds and hands to help install a working system. After each installation, sophomore students become community teachers either at a free campus workshop or at Santa Barbara’s Earth Day.

We have been able to stretch our funds by purchasing “experienced” panels from the Rahus Institute’s Solar Schoolhouse program, California’s leading solar educator. These arrays were among those initially placed on rooftops by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District as part of the “PV Pioneer I” research and development project in 1993. Though they were taken down at the project’s conclusion, they can still produce electricity at around 90 percent of their original capacity. Our monthly solar production data for both our new and experienced arrays verifies the soundness of this investment. We have been grateful for technical support from REC Solar and Fuerza del Sol during installations.

Midland, a rigorous college-preparatory boarding and day school celebrating its seventy-fifth year, embraces responsibility to community and environment in its mission. Our ninety-student campus sits on almost three thousand acres, which we explore in classes. Students and staff maintain a seven-acre organic garden and pastures for grass-fed cattle. Our local harvests travel a short, unpaved path to our kitchen, where underclassmen are trained by twelfth graders to serve the food, wash the dishes, and clean the kitchen. Sophomores and juniors who have worked through the ranks of kitchen jobs move on to trash and recycling or to cleaning classrooms, bathrooms, or the library. Students heat their daily shower water in communal shower fire tanks, with fire-stoking rotations set up by their senior prefects. Faculty and students do annual native valley-oak restoration, and students also manage to find time to sing, dance, act, create art, and play sports.

Midland’s founders, Paul and Louise Squibb, believed in the educational value of students working to meet their basic needs while localizing the impacts, for this will instill lifetime habits rooted in knowing what it takes to heat water or produce food and electricity. This knowing should translate into treating these resources as precious. We hope that our projects empower our students with the skills, confidence, and wisdom to make a difference in their home communities beyond Midland.

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