Thomas Jefferson High School Installs Solar Panels

By Michael Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 10, 2009

With a hot sun beating down onto Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology yesterday, the brand-new solar panels perched on its roof had already cranked out $7.60 worth of power.

Joining their counterparts at a rapidly growing number of solar-powered schools across the country, students and teachers unveiled a string of 22 panels on top of the school in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County. They hope it is just the first step in updating their early-1960s building -- a leap from the Jetsons era into the green age.

Also on hand was the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa P. Jackson.

"Really smart kids like you get the importance of reducing greenhouse emissions," Jackson said. "You're making it happen across the country."

The solar array is modest -- two neat rows of shiny black panels, each about the size of a car door -- but the juice they will generate when the sun hits them and starts jiggling electrons will be able to power 100 laptops at high noon. Students and teachers estimated that the panels would keep five tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere every year.

Solar panels have been creeping across school roofs around the country for years -- campuses in San Diego, Cleveland and Lexington, Mass., are notable examples -- but the hefty initial investment required had kept them off Washington area schools until recently. Montgomery County decked out three schools with solar panels last year and is working on a fourth. The private Sidwell Friends School in the District is equipped with the earth-friendly panels. A few small projects have taken hold in Loudoun and Fairfax counties, and Thurgood Marshall Academy in the District was recently fitted with a system similar to the one unveiled yesterday at Thomas Jefferson.

The school's Environmental Impact Club decided two years ago to pursue sustainable energy. Students pointed out that power in Northern Virginia comes largely from coal-fired power plants that emit large quantities of carbon dioxide. To them, that meant that the environmental benefit from a solar project would be even more pronounced.

"We debated between solar and wind energy, and we settled on solar power," said Varun Bansal, president of the club and a Harvard-bound senior.

Students raised money over two years, with a bit of help from environmental organizations, amassing $56,000 to pay for the panels, which generate enough electricity to power an ordinary house. They ran into hurdles only when they needed permits and approvals to put the panels atop one of their labs, students and teachers said.

Now that the system is up and running, flat-screen monitors at the school's entrance show off the electricity generated since the switch was flipped Monday: 18 kilowatt hours as of yesterday afternoon, enough to power a typical refrigerator for almost two weeks and worth about $7.60. The information is also available on the Internet, and students plan to experiment with the panels next year to increase their output.

Students said they aren't finished with environmentally friendly initiatives. They and teachers plan to work to ensure that upcoming school renovations are green. There is talk of a study of the merits of installing a wind turbine.

"Solar panels are the icing on the cake of any green building," said history teacher Amanda Hurowitz, who has worked on the project. "I hope that the county comes up with a building worthy of the panels."

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