Buhler schools look to Maize High School for examples of solar energy success
Buhler saw a spike in energy costs after the state's February cold snap, but now, the school district is thinking big. Kansas schools are looking to incorporate solar energy to reduce energy expenses.
Buhler leadership called in a teacher who started the largest solar energy system for a school in Kansas and began to accumulate information.
"We want to save money, be more efficient and use it as an educational tool," said Laura Meyer Dick, president of Buhler's Board of Education, and the person who came up with the idea. "We want to use it to benefit the district."
Dick, along with the rest of Buhler's board, learned from Stan Bergkamp, who teaches physics at Maize High School, that utilizing solar systems to power school buildings works.
What's working at Maize High School
Three years ago, Bergkamp decided Maize High School should be more energy efficient. He looked into the possibility of using solar panels. After his investigation showed there could be positive results, he put a proposal together and went to his school board.
Teaching physics, was a plus. He already understood the concept of how solar energy works. He only had to figure out the financing and logistics.
Bergkamp found a nearby ethanol plant that was willing to help out with the $400,000 unit that powers the school's career center - a building with more than a dozen classrooms and meeting spaces.
"We're saving about $32,000 annually," he said. "If you do the math, they (Maize) are still realizing an 8% return on your money. That is a guaranteed 8% return on investment."
Bergkamp’s current and former students, friends and community members have contributed $200,000 toward the endeavor, which not only saves money and helps the environment, but it educates students in alternative energies.
"This is an opportunity for schools to invest their money and then turn around and make money with the savings they are going to realize," Bergkamp said.
The 240-kilowatt system, which has more than 700 solar panels, is the length of a football field. The panels resemble three stripes running down the field.
Although the Maize panels are on the ground, Bergkamp said they can be placed on a roof, covered walkway or covered car park for teachers or school busses.
Maize is transforming the area where the panels are located into an environmental learning area. Along with the panels, they have a pond and have planted native grasses.
Bergkamp said school districts can partner with a third party that is going to pay for the system and that allows them, the business, to have access to federal tax credits.
It's similar to a rent to own situation, he said.
Solar power at other Kansas schools
Kansas has a few pockets where schools use solar power for instruction. Most of these schools are located in the Greater Kansas City area. In addition, there is a less-than-12-kilowatt system in a Derby, Salina and DeSoto school. In total, about a dozen schools in Kansas have a small number of panels, including a 35-kilowatt system in Olathe.
Neighboring states are looking into solar energy as well. Oklahoma has one school that is experimenting with this alternative energy. Nebraska has two. But Colorado and Missouri are doing more. Colorado has more than 80 schools with panels, while the Show-Me State has more than 100.
Recently, the Winfield School District decided to power a barn with solar energy. Plans are already drawn up.
"The project was designed around a student that has passed," said Autumn Watts, a spokesperson for the Winfield School district.
Bergkamp will continue to monitor input and output, keeping records of all data. Each semester, schools across the state contact him with questions.
"I think they're waiting to see the numbers," he said. "We're kind of the leading edge in this. They want to see three to four years of data."
Buhler has already completed some research and sees the benefits of introducing this form of energy. They are planning a feasibility study on what would be best.
"We want them to give us our best bang for our buck," Dick said.
Buhler's board will not decide on a unit or on which school will receive the solar panels until all the studies and interviews of solar companies are complete. They will also have to get business partners to help them with the cost.
But Superintendent Cindy Couchman and the board are thinking that Union Valley Elementary School might be the right location for a unit. They are also examining Buhler High School and Buhler Grade School.
"Everybody wins on it," Couchman said. "It feels like the right thing to do."
Both Couchman and Dick said they will examine the possibilities and continue to ask experts for their thoughts.
"I like what they (Buhler) are doing," Bergkamp said. "I think they are going to be successful."