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Safety First: Florida's Solar-Powered E-Shelters Enhance Schools Throughout the State

The Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC) – think of it as a solar energy amusement park. Each door reveals a new wonder: solar efficiency labs, hydrogen experimentation, inverter and module testing, controlled environments, and more, much more. But amidst this techie heaven is also a large educational center dedicated to all ages and interests, from kindergarteners learning about solar energy to solar installer training. Local universities are also involved at FSEC, and allow students to take courses for college credit. The facility receives over 15 million in grants and contracts each year, according to Bill Young, a senior research engineer at FSEC.

One of these grants has been allocated to the E-Shleter program as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The E-Shelter program is a facet of FSEC’s SunSmart Program, which has already installed 1-2-kW photovoltaic systems at several schools throughout the state with the help of grants. Schools throughout Florida — elementary through universities — were encouraged to apply for the E-Shelter program. Winners are set to or have already received a 10-kW solar project on their campus.Suitable public schools were determined by their location, status as an Enhanced Hurricane Protection Area emergency shelter and renewable energy educational and outreach programs. A review team ranked the schools on a points system, with each question ranked and scored accordingly based on the following ranges: geographic information up to 25 points, school/shelter information up to 30 points, partnership opportunities up to 20 points, and education interest up to 25 points.

“Schools had to apply and fill out an application asking for what they were doing in terms of education programs, what kinds of things they were going to do with it and who is supporting them,” explained Young. “We had over 250 applications, then we had to whittle it down to 120 and then we still narrowed it down from there.” 

Many of the schools will receive ground-mount installations, the FSEC preferred method of installation, according to its website. These generally require about 2,000 square feet of unobstructed land, usually near the school building. If this type of space is not possible, FSEC will try to utilize a different approach. But regardless of where the system is installed, the battery component is installed in an outdoor enclosure with grid-interactive inverters, supplied by OutBack Power, and electrical components near this structure. 

Each system powers four or five rooms in the school — about 10 lights and two receptacles, depending on the building and its needs. Said Young: “If they lose power and a generator doesn’t come on, then they’ll at least have that much energy and power to get out of the building.”

Schools generally see about $1,500 in savings with the system’s average production at about 10 kilowatts per day based on the measure of Florida’s  $0.11 per kilowatt. 

Once the system is installed, FSEC continues to be involved in education at the sites. “We have three people that focus on education that go out to the E-Shelter sites,” said Young. Through the SumSmart program, FSEC provides materials, such as lesson plans and sample exams, and professional development for teachers, while students also have access to educational materials including the EnergyWiz website, which collects the PV system’s performance data.

The program has already made some great progress, and FSEC hopes it continues. “We have 62 done already and we have about 25 more to go. We’ve got a new contract for another 10, which are being paid for by the utility,” said Young. “They said ‘we’ll do solar,’ so that’s where 10 of the systems are coming from. And next year we’ll be able to do another 10 — for the next five years we’re going to do ten a year.”

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