June 10, 2010 at 8:43 a.m.

Project Independence achieves goal of solar installation at Middle School

Project Independence achieves goal of solar installation at Middle School
Project Independence achieves goal of solar installation at Middle School

The entire student population of Chisago Lakes Middle School celebrated last week as the new solar panel array, installed on the highway side of the building, was dedicated. The outdoor student assembly was a sight; with several hundred kids gathered on the school lawn.

This effort to bring Chisago Lakes Middle School (at least a portion of it) into the solar generation started in August 2008. Science Instructor Pat Collins envisioned installing solar panels on the south end of the school, he started by first talking with Principal John Menard.

Menard said district administration then okayed the idea, and by March 2009, with the school board and Parents Advisory Group approvals secured, the actual work of fundraising began. Menard admitted he was not sure this project would ever be accomplished. At an estimated $74,000, "I had my doubts," he recalled.

Chisago Lakes Middle School students started raising funds for the solar system, in an effort they dubbed "Project Independence." They organized events like the 5K solar saunter, sold T-shirts and sweatpants, they participated in dress-up days where students could pay a dollar and wear a hat for example. There were school dances (with Eric Rich donating sound equipment, slashing the usual expenses.) Funds were also contributed by local fire departments, churches, Polaris. The Xcel Energy solar rewards program and state energy programming grants put the project over-the-top.

The electricians' time was donated by IBEW Local 110. Installation was under the supervision of the Able Energy Co. (www.weknowsolar.com)

IBEW spokesperson Brian Winkelaar, whose son attends the middle school, attended the dedication and told the students what a terrific thing they have done.

Instructor Collins estimates the small 44-panel array will save about $1,500 annually, as it generates power and spins the school's utility meter "backwards."

"Project Independence" is not the middle school's first venture into environmental activism.

Menard reminded everybody at the assembly outdoors last week, about the Arbor Day initiative undertaken by students looking to plant hundreds of trees in public spaces in the Chisago Lakes area. The handiwork from that effort is growing at parks, Lindstrom city hall, play fields, etc.

There was "Project H2O" supporting the efforts of the organization Water-for-Africa.

Students raised about $14,000; which Menard said went to install two water wells and restrooms for an African school.

State Senator Rick Olseen attended the dedication along with State Rep. Jeremy Kalin. The two had worked along with the district to win grant funding for this project at the state level. Olseen asked how many kids were aware of the oil spill in the gulf and all hands went up. He said projects like this will eventually lessen dependence on fossil fuels and reduce the need for ocean drilling. He said efforts like this will make a difference. Kalin added that this project is a "lesson for other districts" and will be looked at as a model. "You are making a difference," he told the students.


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