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Installation of solar panels begins at East Chapel Hill High

Students at East Chapel Hill High School along with local government officials signed a solar panel replicating those that will be at the school.

Groundbreaking began for a fully-funded solar panel system last week at East Chapel Hill High School thanks to years of hard work from two UNC first-years.

In their junior year at ECHHS, Megan Doherty and Connor Diaz worked with their fellow classmates in the school’s environmental sustainability club, Eastainability, to earn a renewable energy grant funded by Duke Energy and administered by N.C. GreenPower.  

The club spent months working on the application, and ECHHS was one of seven North Carolina schools to earn the grant, which covers 100 percent of costs.

“It was a huge, huge relief,” Doherty said. “We had been working on that grant for a long time.”

The solar panel installation is part of an extensive effort by the club to make their school more energy efficient. The grant also promises a weather station, monitoring equipment, training for the school’s faculty and a new sustainability curriculum for the students.

“They are implementing the panels right now,” Diaz said. “But the curriculum takes a bit longer because they have to train the teachers, and it’s a multi-grade curriculum.”

Teachers at ECHHS are already planning to use the solar panels and weather monitoring system to offer a hands-on experience for a variety of science classes, such as chemistry and physics. Stephen Snyder, an ECHHS biology and environmental science teacher sees the panels as a tangible means for curious students to learn about environmental science.

“We’re going to look at how much sun is up; we are going to look at that 24 hours a day,” Snyder said. “We’re going to be looking at how much energy the solar panels are putting out.”

Though only mounting poles have been erected so far, the completed installation will include 16 panels. This will generate 7,000 kilowatt hours per year, enough to meet the energy needs of an average household for six months, said Randy Wheeless, Duke Energy’s communications manager. 

He sees the installation as a great educational opportunity for the students.

“These students get a chance to see solar in action up close,” he said. “They get to see what its positives and negatives are.”

Doherty said she is thrilled to have been able to make a real difference, even as a high school student. The past success of previous leaders of Eastainability inspired her to strive for the grant.

“The fact that they could create a garden and start composting at our school made me think that I, as a high schooler, could also make a difference at my school,” Doherty said.  

Doherty said she continues to envision a greener future. She said she sees potential for UNC to operate in a more environmentally conscious manner.

“If you look out from Davis (Library), you see all these blank, flat rooftops, and they appear to be perfect for rooftop gardens,” she said. “There are so many benefits for rooftop gardens, it helps with insulation and run off.”

Doherty said she has been too busy pursuing her double biology and Chinese majors to further pursue these ideas, but she and Diaz have proven that students are capable of having a lasting influence on their schools.

“Energy output is something that is a corporate task,” Diaz said. “The fact that a bunch of kids in high school can tackle it and make a difference is really impactful in my opinion.”

Duke Energy does not have plans to reimplement the grant, but North Carolina schools interested in solar energy can still apply for N.C. GreenPower’s Solar Schools matching grant, which provides 50 percent of necessary funding.

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