Fact Sheet: Solar Energy in Schools
Remember that some areas of your school may be off-limits without permission from your teacher or principal, and some projects should be done with at least one partner. Check with your teacher before beginning any of the activities or projects listed here.
Why It Matters
The sun provides a clean and limitless supply of energy. Using solar power reduces the need for dirtier sources of power -- like coal, gas or oil -- and reduces pollution.
In the United States, we make most of our electricity by burning coal, gas and oil -- known as fossil fuels -- in power plants. This process is extremely dirty. In fact, it causes much of the world's pollution, including the kind that is creating global warming. In addition, to get oil, gas and coal, we must dig or drill in the ground or the ocean, causing more pollution and harming wildlife. And that's not all -- supplies of these fuels are limited. Someday, we could use them up.
But there's another source of energy that doesn't pollute and will never run out: the sun. Solar energy can be used in many ways. Sometimes it's as simple as keeping the shades up so sunlight can light or warm a room. In other cases, it involves installing devices that trap the sun's energy or convert it to electricity. Did you know that many small calculators and watches run on solar energy? That means you've probably already used solar electricity without even realizing it.
Solar energy falls into three main categories: solar photovoltaic electricity, passive solar and solar thermal energy. All of them produce energy without releasing pollution particles or chemicals into the air.
What Kids Can Do
- Photovoltaic cells are often called PVs for short. They absorb sunlight and turn it into electricity without using any moving parts. Instead, they use a chemical reaction to produce energy.
- Passive solar uses the sun for lighting and heat, also without moving parts. There are different kinds of passive solar devices. Some absorb sunlight and then slowly release it, even after the sun sets. Others simply bring as much light as possible into a room. A window can be a passive solar device.
- Solar thermal systems also collect the sun's energy, but they use mechanical devices to move water or air across surfaces that have absorbed sunlight to heat them.
Schools are an excellent place to use solar energy. For one thing, they're open during the day -- when the sun is out and when it's possible to get the most benefit from its power. And by showing solar power in action, schools can help educate the rest of the community about the benefits of this pollution-free energy source.
Schools can take advantage of solar energy in many ways. In some cases, school officials will have to do some research and invest in equipment. The next section gives some advice on how they can go about this.
You can increase your school's use of solar energy right away by allowing more natural light to filter into classrooms. You'll not only help your school use less electricity, you might even improve your grades! Several studies have shown that when schools use lots of natural light, students have better attendance records and do better on their schoolwork. But keep direct light away from blackboards and computer screens. (Otherwise, glare can make them hard to read.)
What Your School Can Do
Installing solar equipment at a school takes research and planning, as well as money. (Although your school might make the money back over time because of lower energy bills.)
But more and more schools are going solar, so administrators at your school can learn from their experiences. For information, visit Schools Going Solar
or Solar Now
Your school might qualify for money to help pay for solar equipment. Your state's energy office or public utility commission can provide information on any financial help that's available. Two other good places to check are the Database of State Incentives for Renewable Energy
(DSIRE) or the Million Solar Roofs Initiative financing page
- Solar study: Learn more about solar power. Ask your custodian or principal for information about the amount of electricity your school uses each month. Then make a chart comparing solar-powered electricity with more traditional sources and estimate how much less pollution your school would create by switching at least in part to solar power.
- Temperature check: If you've ever crossed to the sunny side of the street to warm up, you were taking advantage of the sun's ability to provide heat. Why not see how much the sun warms your classroom? Measure the sun's heat through the glass. Take the temperature near the window and in a less sunny spot to see the difference.
- Solar science projects: Visit the Department of Energy's Energy Science Projects and Activities site and check out the brochure Solar Energy Science Projects (note that this is an Adobe Acrobat file) for experiments your class can do to learn more about solar heating and electricity.
- Campaign for solar power: Write a letter, or start a petition, asking your school district to use solar power. Click here for a sample letter. Your school's office can tell you how to contact the members of your school board.