Pa. high school students build sustainable energy center
(Bristol, Pa.) — Outside and working up a good sweat during the current heat wave, John Stange didn’t seem to mind a bit.
He believes in what he’s doing, and so do his fellow students at Bucks County Technical High School who during the last three years have transformed a roughly 20,000-square-foot outdoor portion of the Bristol Township school campus into a Learning Center for Sustainable Energy.
Consisting of six solar panel arrays, five wind turbines and many other components, the center produces enough energy to power two full-sized classrooms at BCTHS. But its main purpose is to be a sustainable energy educational resource for the school and surrounding community, students, teachers and officials said.
“Our goal here is to educate the public, not so much to gain from it,” John said. “We’re collecting data and want to give people a true idea on things like would installing solar panels be worthwhile at their homes or businesses.
“If you go to solar installers, they will tell you everything is good because they are salesmen, they are trying to sell you something. We’re giving you straight facts and an opportunity to look at forms of sustainable energy first hand.”
John, of Middletown, and fellow rising seniors Jason Wible, of Falls, and Sean Gutekunst, of Middletown, took a break from their work on the project earlier this week to talk about it and their belief in the merits of sustainable energy sources.
“If the power goes out, you don’t have to worry about it,” said John. “It’s more reliable and better for the environment than fossil fuels, and fossil fuels are limited and will run out. But you’re not going to run out of the sun. You might not have optimal wind but you’re going to have wind at some point, and hydropower is awesome because the river is not going to stop.”
Sean said one of the pieces of information garnered from the center is that solar is a more viable source of energy in Bucks County than wind.
“It’s much less efficient in this county because of lower wind speeds,” Sean said.
“I’m very drawn in by the idea of independence from the energy grid. I can’t speak for everyone, but I think it’s vital we move away from fossil fuels.”
I can’t speak for everyone, but I think it’s vital we move away from fossil fuels. –Jason Wible
“We’re collecting long-term data to show how savings realized from solar and other sustainable energy sources will eventually offset the up-front costs,” he said.
Efforts to build the center were led by students from the school’s applied engineering course of study, which included, in addition to John, Sean and Jason, Dayne Capaldi, James Gavrushenko, James Mullane and Logan Fuller.
Fine woodworking students Daniel Stange, Brandon Klein and Briana Gross put in lots of time on the project, and students from many other areas at BCTHS also contributed, said electronic engineering teacher Al Doman, who oversees work on the center.
Though it looks finished, the project will continue to be expanded and refined, Doman said.
“The energy production capability will be increased, among other things,” he said. “It’s an evolving project. It will continue to grow long after I leave.”
The $40,000 cost of the center was funded entirely through grants and donations, with the largest grant a $20,000 gift from Dow Chemical.
Chloe Doman, Al’s daughter and an environmental/urban planning major at West Chester University, was project manager for the center. Dominic Panaia continues to help despite graduating from the technical school in June, Al Doman added.
Among other sources of assistance were advice and materials donations from area businesses and organizations, including Home Depot, Kiss Electric and the Bowman’s Hill Wildflower Preserve, he said.
In addition to the solar panels, wind turbines and related components, the learning center also includes a walkway, a native plants bed and several information stations — both audio and visual — where visitors can learn more about the project and sustainable energy in general. The goal is to eventually host public tours and other events at the center, BCTHS officials said.
“There’s this continuous fight out there between those who are environmentalists and those who are not regarding sustainable energy,” Doman said. “Our No. 1 goal with this center is to answer a lot of those questions. We don’t have to get involved with the politics because people can some see for themselves.”
Leon Poeske, administrative director at BCTHS, beams with pride when talking about the learning center. He said he believes its scope and detail are unprecedented for high school students.
“What they’ve done is phenomenal,” Poeske said. “It’s better than I ever thought it would be and again, the thing with this center is not so much the energy it’s providing but the skills our kids are learning.”