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Notre Dame High School: Renewable Energy Leaders

by Worldchanging Chicago local blogger, Sarah Feinstein:

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Notre Dame High School in Niles, Illinois is using the power of the sun to heat water in their science wing, making it the first high school in the state to have a solar thermal system installed. "This is an exciting time in Notre Dame High School’s history," said Fran Pelrine, a science teacher for Notre Dame. "We are becoming a leader in our community and our state in implementing renewable energy technology."

The existing electric hot water system in the science wing could not keep up with demand, making it an ideal situation for a solar thermal system. The three-panel solar hot water system was installed by Niles-based Solar Service Inc. and can heat 200 gallons of water daily. The solar heater can displace more than 10,000 kilowatt hours of electricity annually, saving tens of thousands of dollars of energy costs over the life of the system. A grant from the Illinois Department of Economic Opportunity will pay for 50 percent of the system. Other foundation grant opportunities, such as the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation may allow the system to pay for itself in as little as three years. The solar setup can prevent about 10 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. Using solar to lower energy costs will help reduce the need for new power plants to be built, while increasing community awareness of renewable energy.

Located in Niles, this Catholic high school for young men takes pride in providing an "education of mind and heart." In line with their belief that "society has a great need for people of values who lead lives of scholarship and social responsibility," the solar system will do more than just heat water for the science wing.

"Because our students are the future, they need to be educated in matters that will improve our environment," said Pelrine. "If one of the goals of science education is to form a more science literate society, we must begin this education now, at as early an age as possible."

The solar system offers hands-on learning opportunities for the students. The control panel stores data about the system performance, which can then be downloaded onto the school’s computers.

"Since we will be able to monitor data about how the panels are working during all types of Chicago weather, our roof will essentially become an extension of our laboratories," said Pelrine. "We want to spread that excitement of being an alternative energy leader to our students and use these physical plant improvements as a teaching tool. What better way is there to learn than through real-life applications?" In the future, the science curriculum may be expanded to have a class about solar energy or renewable energy.

Many of the students are making college choices and such first-hand experience with renewable energy makes them aware of career opportunities in the renewable energy field.

"There will be tens of thousands of jobs in renewable energy in the future," said Tim Herling, the director of operations at Notre Dame High School. "Why not put the boys in this school in the front of this industry? If this is the future, let it start here."

Notre Dame has very good solar potential and plans to utilize more renewable energy in the near future. A larger thermal system is being considered to heat the water for the school’s main hot water supply, which provides hot water to the campus and cafeteria. A photovoltaic setup and wind turbine could generate electricity and provide science learning opportunities.

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