, Newburyport, MA

October 3, 2009

School goes solar

State's largest municipal array up and running

By Lynne Hendricks

NEWBURYPORT — The Rupert A. Nock Middle School solar project may not have gotten off to the smoothest of starts, but its grand opening ribbon-cutting ceremony coming up on Oct. 14 is expected to cast plenty of positive light on the recently activated solar installation. It's the largest municipal solar photovoltaic system currently operating in the state, according to solar contractor firm Ameresco of Framingham, and to celebrate its activation, the city has invited some of the state's highest-profile environmentalists to help it pay homage to this "super green" initiative.

Expected to attend are Secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles, who will serve as keynote speaker for the affair, followed by speakers Phil Giudice, Commissioner of the Department of Energy Resources, and Massachusetts Technology Collaborative Director Carter Wall.

Attendees will also hear from Mayor John Moak, who will act as master of ceremonies for the event, and consultant Jeff Wootan, who negotiated the deal on the city's behalf while still a member of the city's Energy Advisory Committee.

"Ameresco, the City, and the schools worked closely to put the construction schedule on the fast track so that the Nock School installation would be completed during the school's summer vacation months," reads the invitation to the event. "Since September 1, 2009, the system has produced almost 20 percent more electricity than originally calculated for the available sunlight."

According to Nock Principal Barry Hopping, the ribbon-cutting ceremony marks the beginning of what he's sure will become a special, unique learning opportunity for local students.

In fact, with the recent arrival and installation of the much-anticipated lobby kiosk and wall-mounted monitor, students, teachers and staff have been tracking the real-time data streaming down from the rooftop panels, and what they're seeing is creating buzz and excitement for solar energy throughout the school, he said.

"I can't take my eyes off it," said Hopping of the LCD screen that greets visitors upon entering the school. "It's great stuff."

The kind of information that students are being offered through the terminal, which is controlled via another data port located in Nock's front office, pertains to how much energy the solar panels are producing.

"There's a small monitor that's here that serves as the hub," Hopping said. "It provides data in real time. As the energy is actually being produced, we're seeing it. It tells you how much energy is being produced and what you can run by the energy that is produced."

Weather conditions and measurements of kilowatt energy is tracked via the Internet and sent down to the main office and can submit data to individual classrooms as well, he said.

"It breaks it down into usage examples or terms," Hopping said. "It shows you how many air conditioners can be powered with what's being produced, or how many fluorescent light bulbs or refrigerators. I learn something new every day."

Hopping said Ameresco technicians have been enormously helpful in teaching him and others about the system, and he expects the coming weeks will offer an opportunity for teachers and staff to learn more about the terminal and how it may be worked into the curriculum. For the time being, Hopping said the school is in the learning phase.

"We're still trying to work out all the bugs," Hopping said. "We don't know what exactly it's going to be capable of. Right now, a lot of the kids walk by the monitor, and they don't give it a second thought. That will change once we have a better understanding of what we have access to and how we can use it. The potential here is amazing."

As part of the agreement with Ameresco, the company that financed the panels by way of a 20-year power purchase contract with the city of Newburyport, the company will provide professional development to teachers at the Nock so that they will know what to do with the data once it gets into the classrooms. That tutorial will likely be offered soon after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Hopping said.

"People are excited about it, but they just don't know how to use it yet," he said. "We're not at that point yet."

The ribbon-cutting ceremony is planned for Wednesday, Oct. 14, at 10 a.m. in the Nock Middle School library.