Solar flair

IIt’s a crisp, sunny April afternoon on the campus of Pasadena’s Westridge School for Girls, but while the scenic Arroyo Seco abounds with majestic rooftop views, local solar installer Jim Jenal remains bent over his work, eyes downward.   He is examining a micro inverter that will soon been hooked up to one of 209 solar panels on the southward facing roof of the Fran Norris Scoble Performing Arts Center on the 98-year-old private school campus. This tiny, flat metal box allows the panel to transmit information to the Web for easy monitoring, making the solar technology teachable to students. “This will give you reports down to what each individual panel did for each day of the month, so that’s a lot of data they can get at,” he explains.  Jenal, co-founder of local solar installation company A Run on Sun, and his team members have installed a system that will generate 52.25 kilowatts of main power, enough energy to run roughly 10 Pasadena-sized homes, according to Jenal. Westridge’s new system uses technology from Enphase Energy, a company that combines solar operations with communications software that lets clients track and monitor the system’s output.  “Eventually, we’ll have a map that shows this roof array with all 209 panels,” says Jenal. “It will show what the output is from each panel in real time and over time.” Teachers and students can study the solar panels from computers in classrooms or the convenience of their phone or iPads, Jenal adds. He plugs an Ethernet cable from a box installed outside the school into his own laptop and pulls up a screen display.  The rectangular panels appear in three sub-arrays that create the circuit of the larger system. Each panel appears in a different shade of blue, according to the amount of energy it is supplying, along with its measured output. Jenal points out a corner of darker blue panels — this is where a grove of trees near the arts center casts a shadow. The readout is so sensitive a user could watch a cloud pass over the panels. Jenal admits owners of Enphase models generally enjoy the tracking features. “People who invest in solar systems tend to be really proud of their investment, and they’re really happy to show that to people. This is an easy way for them to do that,” he says.  That may not be true for every solar user, but it is certainly the case for Westridge School.Bringing science to lifeFounded in 1913, Westridge prides itself on offering learning opportunities that go far beyond a textbook. Its mission promises to encourage students toward ethical action and social and environmental responsibility, so they can “become contributing citizens of the larger world.” Teaching sustainable practices by implementing them on campus is one step toward that goal. Turning those practices into hands-on learning projects, like maintaining a drought-tolerant rain garden, brings an added benefit to students, McGregor says.  “Now, as we renovate our campus, we always try to have as a big part of that a commitment to sustainability,” she adds. “It has been a part of who we are for many, many years. It’s woven not only into our philosophy, but in the curriculum and the clubs and the studies.”  Run on Sun’s installation cost about $220,000, but more than half the cost will be recouped by a rebate from the city. The school expects a full return on its investment in about seven years, says Westridge Director of Facilities Brian Williams. This latest solar installation joins several other environmentally friendly projects already being employed by officials and tracked by students. Three self-watering rain gardens feature drought-tolerant plants native to California, and an updated watering system saves the school 30 percent on its water bill, partly by adjusting its output to complement to weather patterns. Water used throughout the school is regularly recycled for reuse. In 2009, Westridge opened a 14,000-square-foot science and math building that allows students to observe green technology at work. The building features light and motion sensors and eco-dimming lights. Outdoor demonstration areas include a green roof with living succulents and a Wi-Fi equipped experimentation area, a garden lab, solar panels that supply 455 watts of electricity to the building and a citrus garden.  Those distinctions earned the building a Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified platinum rating, making it the first building in Pasadena to receive that high a ranking. That special designation, along with other sustainability efforts, led to city officials awarding the school one of five Green City awards at its April 14 Earth and Arts Festival.  More than being a collection of the best and most efficient technologies at hand, the science and math building was designed as a teaching tool for environmental education, officials say. “The students can actively analyze the savings as a result,” says McGregor, who’s had students confide in her their plans to pursue environmentally related degrees after graduation. “They don’t just hear about it — they experience it.”Green GuerrillasThe solar monitoring project will make up a unit in Westridge’s Advanced Placement Environmental Science course for juniors and seniors. The idea is that bringing solar panel information into the classroom will not only help students become more knowledgeable about the technical aspects of energy efficiency, but perhaps inspire them to someday seek alternative forms of energy in their own homes. “One of the principles we are trying to embed in the kids is making it a part of your everyday life,” Williams says. “When you buy a house, consider solar. When you brush your teeth, turn the water off. If you plant a garden, use drought-tolerant plants.”  So far, the students are more than willing to incorporate these lessons into their own lives.Three senior girls talking in the courtyard after school — Sara, Aileen and Alex — are members of the school’s environmental club, the Green Guerrillas. They are all happy to bring their own plates, cloth napkins and silverware to school to reduce waste and water usage and say living a lower impact lifestyle is easy, and fun, to do.  Sara’s environmental passions run toward fresh, organic baking. “Making a difference doesn’t mean you have to devote every aspect of your life to that cause,” the 18-year-old says. “It’s incorporating environmentalism into your life, but not so it’s drudging work. You’re just fitting it in.”  Aileen, 17, who fell in love with gardening after receiving spinach seeds from Sara for her birthday, dislikes that her current house lacks the shade required for vegetable gardening. “When I’m older, I’m buying a house based on how much sun there is, so I can have a garden,” she says. “And I’m going to teach my kids to do all this.” “I know there is this big environmental issue. Some change has to happen to solve it, so I might as well be a part of it,” says the 18-year-old Alex, who hopes to apply her avid interest in math and science into an engineering degree with a green focus at Pennsylvania’s Lafayette University. “It’s not that hard — it takes a little to help a lot.”