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Solar panels

A new solar panel array has been installed at Skyview High School.

A new solar panel array at Skyview High will double as an alternative energy source and educational opportunity, school district officials said. 

Two rows of panels, which are capable of pumping out almost 50 kilowat/hours of power, were installed this summer as part of a grant from NorthWestern Energy. The company put $50,000 toward the project, and the school district paid $100,000. 

It should take about 10 years to pay off the investment, according to School District 2 facilities director Scott Reiter, with about $10,000 in electric bill savings each year. 

"It's just another step toward saving energy," he said. 

The district has also secured another $50,000 grant for a solar array at Senior High, likely on the building's roof. Those panels are slated to be assembled and operational by November.

The project was championed by school trustee Janna Hafer, who works at High Plains Architects — a firm that emphasizes sustainability — and was already aware of NorthWestern's solar grants. The district had only one small panel on the roof at West High. 

"It makes it easier to make that decision (to add more) when you get some outside help," she said. 

The project went to Skyview because of ground space for the array and because the building is the district's "energy hog."

"It was built in the mid-80s," Reiter said. "Electricity was cheap," so the building was designed to use it as a primary utility driver, compared to steam or natural gas. 

The solar array is hooked up to NorthWestern's net metering system; any extra energy produced that Skyview doesn't use will go back into the electric grid, and NorthWestern will pay the school district.

However, that's an unlikely scenario. Based on previous electric bills, Reiter said that even at its lowest need Skyview would still use more energy than the panels provide. 

Installation of the array is almost complete, and it should be functioning before the school year begins.

With a 30-year life, the panels should easily live beyond the payback period for the initial investment. 

"We have those 19 to 20 years of, it's paying us," Reiter said. 

Education

Reiter said the array is an educational opportunity as well. 

A monitor set up in the school will show how much power the panels are producing. And one panel isn't hooked up to the array, making it available for class projects or experiments. 

"I think it's a great opportunity," Hafer said. 

Education about energy conservation is also a big factor in changing a school's culture about energy use, Reiter said. 

"One computer, it's just a blip somewhere. You won't ever see it," when looking at electric consumption, he said. 

But dozens of computers, light bulbs or fans? Or hundreds? Or thousands?

"That is a huge savings when you get things shut off when they don't need to be on," he said. "In the end, the most efficient light is the one that's turned off."

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Education Reporter

Education reporter for the Billings Gazette.