High school students bring renewable energy to their Colorado community

November 21, 2019

In a Western Colorado community, decades of drought have left lasting impacts on the surrounding forests, and extreme weather events frequently destroy local fruit crops. Coal mines once supplied the region with abundant fuel, and recent natural gas discoveries in deep shale formations bring the promise of additional fossil fuel resources. However, stagnating oil prices and the recent closure of two of the three coal mines prompted one high school teacher to prepare his students for a different future.

High school teacher Ben Graves received funding from NOAA Planet Stewards to develop a solar energy training course. His students designed and installed the 2.4 kW solar array to power the science wing of their school.

With funding from the NOAA Planet Stewards Education Project, environmental science teacher Ben Graves set out to train his students in the burgeoning field of solar energy. Delta, Colorado, has one of the highest potentials for solar photovoltaic (PV) electricity in the state, and Graves saw this as an opportunity to help his community adapt to changing climate and economic conditions. “Reinvention starts with generating community awareness, changing attitudes, and providing opportunities to master new skills through hands-on technical training,” he said. 

The students in Graves’ 2017-2018 Solar Energy Training vocational course learned all phases of solar electric design and installation. Then they put that knowledge to use by building a solar array in the new Solar PV Lab Yard. Students led every stage of the process. They planned the layout of the solar panels, diagrammed the wiring, and installed the 2.4 kW pole-mounted array to power the science wing of the school building.

Fully embracing their roles as engineers, the students collected data on panel performance and created a set of standard operating procedures to maximize production across different seasons. Advanced Placement® environmental science students monitored the array to predict the annual amount of electricity generated and quantify the climate benefit of the project. Finally, the 2017-2018 class of students helped lay the groundwork for future solar installations at their school and in their community. After completing this project, Mr. Graves successfully wrote a proposal to the local electrical cooperative, Delta-Montrose Electric Association, to install solar arrays at all of the high schools in the county. 

As a result of Graves’ Planet Stewards Education Project, 1.38 tons of carbon dioxide were kept out of the atmosphere in 2018 alone. Fourteen students graduated from the training program and 20 are enrolled in the 2018-2019 school year. The program is slated to continue growing: 10 teachers from the surrounding counties completed a professional development program to bring solar energy and technology into their own classrooms in 2018 with more to follow in 2019. 

“The student-built array is a visible reminder to the community and its leadership that solar electricity is a viable way to reduce the community’s energy demand while having a positive impact on climate change, saving money in the long run, and transforming the community into a renewable energy hub,” said Graves.

Graves became a NOAA Planet Steward in 2018. Through his Solar Energy Training class, students will leave high school not only prepared to become technicians in the solar or electrical industry, but also equipped with engineering, design, and problem-solving skills that will help them navigate a changing world.

This story was originally published in the Fiscal Year 2018 NOAA Education Accomplishments Report.