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Solar panels a step towards greener schools for Helena

Solar panels a step towards greener schools for Helena

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Earlier this month, Helena Public Schools announced it received money to install a solar panel array on the new Bryant Elementary School

A $50,000 grant from the NorthWestern Energy Efficiency Plus Renewable Energy Program will cover the costs of a 50kw solar array similar to the one at Lewis & Clark Library. An additional $9,336 was awarded by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality to contract a technical design document. SMA Architects is working alongside a consultant on the document. 

Madalyn Quinlan, a member of the Montana Board of Public Education, played a major role in coordinating these grant applications for the district. 

Kalli Kind, facilities director for the district, said this is not only a great opportunity for greener schools, but is a great educational opportunity for students. Kind said the district intends to collect data from the solar panels via a Fronius Solar web data monitoring platform. Teachers and students will have access to this data, which can then be used to compare various other facets of energy expenditure.

Bryant is just the first school to receive solar panels. Kind said after the completion of the first roof-mounted array, the district will pursue a grant for solar panels on the new Central Elementary School. After that, it's on to the new Jim Darcy Elementary School. The process will take a few years, but Kind says the district is committed to the idea.

"I don't think there is any expectation that we will get grant funding for all three," Kind said. "But the district will fund the costs from the building reserve."

At this point, any electricity cost savings would be completely speculative, Kind said. This is due to not knowing just how energy efficient the new schools will be once they open their doors next month. 

Klint Fisher, Helena director of SMA Architects, said the new schools will be very efficient relative to the older schools and new construction in the area. SMA Architects was awarded the bid to design Central and put major effort into making the school as energy efficient as possible. 

According to Fisher, the exterior layer of the building is built to retain the interior temperatures as much as possible. This involves thicker and more contiguous installation and low emissivity glass, which is coated to deflect heat. Fisher said this kind of envelope provides work relief to the indoor equipment.

Inside the buildings, SMA chose high-efficiency boilers and air conditioning to lower the energy output of those systems. A control system will automatically dim and turn off lights or adjust lighting based on outside sources. The controlled lighting will be energy efficient LED fixtures throughout the building. The building is also fitted with low-flow plumbing to decrease water waste.

Kind said she suspects the buildings could get Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certified. However, at a cost of approximately $50,000 for a plaque on the wall, Kind said that would be a waste of taxpayer money. 

The project is still in the design phase. Kind said the plan is to put the project out for bid soon. 


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