Key West High adds solar array to campus

This is the new solar array at Key West High School, the latest project of the school's Alternative Energy Center.
This is the new solar array at Key West High School, the latest project of the school's Alternative Energy Center. By SEAN KINNEY

Adding to a robust alternative energy curriculum that already includes production of biodiesel fuel and electricity generated by a wind turbine, Key West High School on Monday unveiled a new solar array installed behind the school.

The array, about 1,000 square feet, cost about $100,000. The money came from a $10 million allocation from the federal Department of Energy via the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The school -- along with 89 others in Florida -- got the money through the Florida Solar Energy Center at Florida State University.

Susan Schleith, manager of the Sunsmart Schools E-Center program, said the goal is to expose high school students to alternative energy, hopefully creating an interest that could be pursued in college and, later, as a profession.

"These students will become the next generation of innovators," she said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony.

Schleith also said there's a tie-in to emergency preparedness; in case of a power outage -- like one experienced Tuesday afternoon -- energy drawn from the solar array could be used to power lights, cell-phone chargers, fans and emergency medical equipment.

"If there's a hurricane or an emergency, we can power some critical functions. Solar is a perfect application after a storm. The sun comes out but no one has any electricity."

Although at 10kW, the array is a drop in the bucket compared to the 500kW drawn by the high school during normal operation; that yields a monthly bill between $30,000 and $40,000. For a school, it's not really significant," Schleith said, "but the goal is to make students aware of solar technology."

The Monroe County School Board established the Alternative Energy Center at Key West High in 2008 after a proposal from physics teacher Josh Clearman; since then, he has grown the program to include on-site conversion of waste oil into usable biodiesel fuel, and a wind turbine that produces electricity and provides data for math and science classes.

"It goes away from just theory to actual planning and application," Clearman said of the alternative energy production facilities.

He said students would monitor the output of the array and compare it to the school's overall energy consumption, then examine the comparative efficiencies of different fuel types. Clearman described the lessons as focusing on "just how much power we're using. If that battery backup is charged, it helps offset our bill."

School District Superintendent Jesus Jara said that for his efforts, Clearman is set to receive an award from the Association of Energy Engineers and World Energy Congress. "He's really putting Key West High School on the map in terms of alternative energy education."

Ty Symroski, a member of the Utility Board of Key West that oversees Keys Energy Services, was also on hand for the event. "When I look around," he said, "I see the future, both in the technology and the students."

Aside from scattered panels on residential houses and some lodgings and businesses, there are few solar arrays in sunny Monroe County; the Florida Keys Electric Cooperative operates a grid-connected array in Marathon that powers more than 20 local homes.