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New coalition wants to bring solar energy into all Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools

A bright future

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About 40 members of a coalition called Repower Our Schools showed up to the July 28 CMS Board of Education meeting to deliver a petition with almost 1,200 signatures urging board members to make a commitment to going 100-percent solar in Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools.

The group, formed in January, is made up of about 30 environmental and education-based organizations. They are working together to urge school officials in Durham and Charlotte to make the transition to solar energy. Creative Loafing caught up with Hanna Mitchell, an organizer with Repower Our Schools, to speak about the movement before she helped deliver the petitions to the Board.

Creative Loafing: Beyond the petition drive, what has this coalition been doing since forming in January?

Hanna Mitchell: We kicked off Repower at the beginning of the year with a great school tour with "Rolling Sunlight," which is a truck with solar panels on top. It was designed to be a mobile power plant. It's a carbon-neutral vehicle and has a 2.4-kilowatt solar array. I drove this around with different coalition partners and volunteers to a bunch of different schools in CMS just talking about renewable energy and getting the kids involved.

What was that experience like?

It was amazing to see kids' expressions and break down concepts of energy with kids from elementary school through to high school. We used a variety of different programming based on the age of the children. I think energy is something that for a lot of people, including children, it's intangible, so giving them the opportunity to touch solar panels was big. We have a solar-powered popcorn maker, so kids could eat popcorn that we made with renewable energy and we got a conversation going about where energy comes from within our communities and what the options are that are out there for the future.

How realistic is it that you can get CMS functioning at 100 percent renewable energy at some point?

This is a very long-term goal and the first step is to make a visionary commitment. There are cities across the country working on it and even all of Hawaii has just made a commitment to move to 100-percent renewable energy. So, it's within the realm of possibility and we're really on the cusp of the renewable energy revolution. CMS can definitely be a leader in driving that forward. There are many different schools across the country that have made commitments to running their schools on solar, and that's been primarily driven by cost.

How could a large scale solar project affect the budget for CMS?

Energy's utiltity costs are typically the largest cost for schools after salary and benefits for staff. With renewable energy and solar, you're locking yourself into a set price, whereas utilitiy rates — we've seen three rate increases over four years — utiltity rates will continue to rise. With investing in renewable energy, you can see those cost savings free up more money for the classroom and for other areas, especially when there are schools struggling with budget issues.

What other ways can it benefit schools beyond price and the obvious environmental impact?

In talking to teachers, and not just within CMS, there's an increased demand for STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) curriculum, and having solar panels on schools can give students the opportunity to gather data and see renewable energy and 21st-century technology in action and interact with it. There's a lot of STEM learning potential.

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