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Solar Panels Dedicated at John Winthrop Middle School

It's a fall classic, Back to School Night, when parents get to follow their students' schedules and meet their teachers. This year, however, there was something new at John Winthrop Middle School's Back to School night-the dedication of the recently installed solar panels on the school's roof.

The evening included remarks from the first selectmen of Essex, Chester, and Deep River; speeches by Middle School Principal Dave Russell and Regional District 4 Director of Facilities Bruce Glowac; and a Fox 61 news video on the solar installation by middle school students under the director of teacher Bobbi Nidz.

Still, the highlight of the proceedings came when students Mary Proteau and Jordan Rosales threw the switch to start the panels working. (Actually, principal Russell said that there had already been tests to make sure the entire system was in working order before the formal dedication.)

Still, the last few weeks have not been without surprises for the solar installation. The company that made the panels, Solyndra, recently made headlines because it went bankrupt despite a $535 million loan guarantee from the federal government. Glowac said that all of the equipment purchased from Solyndra was installed before these recent developments.

"We know it is an excellent product," Glowac said, adding that he was now ensuring that the bankruptcy did not affect the protection and warranties that came with the solar installation.

Glowac explained that he has kept himself informed on the latest developments in renewable energy, not something that was even considered his own school days, by following developments in professional journals.

"You've got to stay current, you've got to stay on the cutting edge" he said.

The solar panels are estimated to save the district some $25,000 a year in electric costs, which means the capital outlay will be paid back in five to six years. The project, which cost $650,000, was financed in parts by grants from the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund and the Connecticut Bureau of School Facilities. Over a period of 35 years, it is anticipated that generating some of its own electricity from solar panels will save Regional District 4 more than $1 million.

The idea for putting in solar panels grew from the installation of a new roof at the middle school in 2006. There is no point, Glowac noted, in installing solar panels on a roof that needs repairs because the panels would have to be removed for any remediation. In 2008, the Regional District 4 Board of Education set up a committee, under the chairmanship of Brian Buckley, to investigate the feasibility of solar installation.

Now that the panels are up and working, they are going to function not simply to supply energy but to enrich the middle school curriculum. Superintendent of Schools Ruth Levy said learning not only about the panels but also about various alternate energy sources will be a part of the ongoing syllabus in areas from math and technology education to studies of the environment.

"The educational piece of this," said Russell, "is that our students are growing up to be citizens in a world where people are interested in a green environment and clean energy. We will incorporate that into our lessons."

He points out that even in social studies, focusing on global problems gives an excellent opportunity to discuss renewable energy issues.

Glowac created a slide presentation currently showing on a video screen in John Winthrop's lobby that documents the various stages in the installation of the panels.

The Solar Building Committee, Glowac said, is considering other energy-saving ideas that may be brought to Regional District 4. Recently solar track lights were installed at the running track at Valley Regional High School. The lights do not use solar energy to power batteries; rather they rely for their operation on capacitors that store and then discharge solar energy. The lights are designed to provide a level of illumination for those who use the track for walking in the evening. A grant from the R4 Educational foundation paid for the project.

Parents at the recent dedication of the middle school panels, according to both Russell and Glowac, applauded the example Region 4 was setting for its students by using renewable energy. Even those who were not as knowledgeable about solar panels expressed enthusiasm.

"They were happy once they learned about the money saving," Glowac said.

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