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More than just spirits will be lifted at Capital High on the next sun-soaked day.

With the help of a NorthWestern Energy grant, Capital High staff were able to partner with several local businesses to get solar panels installed on the building’s roof.

The two rows of panels have been active for about two months and are expected to produce 13,535 kilowatt hours each year, saving Capital roughly $1,400 annually.

“That’s money that’s going right back into, essentially, the general fund,” said Capital science teacher Tom Pedersen, adding that money could then be used to buy textbooks, curriculum or any other number of educational items.

Any energy produced is put straight back into the grid. Pedersen said so far the school is basically using the power right as it’s made, but come summertime when less energy is being used and the sun is beaming full force he thinks it has the potential to power the school and even put a bit of extra energy onto the grid.

Pedersen got the idea after putting solar panels onto his house. His project was a success and with so much space on the school’s roof he figured it could be a viable possibility.

Together, Pedersen and Jack Isbell of Solar Montana applied for a grant from NorthWestern Energy. They received $40,000 last summer.

Several years in the making, the solar installation timed well with a district project to replace the roof on Capital High’s gymnasium. District facilities administration worked to incorporate the solar into the plans, and when the roof repairs were complete Solar Montana installed the panels with help from Diamond Construction and Eagle Electric.

The panels are oriented due south, in the optimal direction to absorb as much sunlight as possible. Free from trees or any other obstruction, the only possible hindrance is bird droppings, Pedersen said.

He and other science teachers plan to talk about the panels to their classes and even use data from the panels and accompanying weather station for class assignments.

“The biggest component is to show sustainable, green energy is real,” Pedersen said.

Converting sunlight into electricity is not a textbook theory or a “pie-in-the-sky” hope. It’s happening and it’s happening in the same building where students are learning.

Though the panels aren’t visible, Pedersen said he has plans to install two kiosks on the school’s first and second floors that could show how much energy is generated in real time.

Anyone can access live data online at Capital High’s page on solarweb.com.

“People need to see that this kind of energy makes sense for taxpayers,” Pedersen said.

Isbell said he’s also helped install a smaller array of solar panels at Helena High, which started producing energy several years ago.

Capital’s panels may cover only a small portion of the energy bill, but Isbell said it’s better than nothing. Most of the cost was covered by the grant, so he said the panels should save enough money to pay for themselves within a couple of years.

Then they’ll keep on producing energy for at least 20 years.

“There’s no reason why this shouldn’t be producing power for decades,” Isbell said.

An earlier version of this article stated Diamond Electric and Eagle Installed the panels, they assisted Solar Montana with some pieces of the instillation. 

Alexander Deedy can be reached at 447-4081 or alexander.deedy@helenair.com

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