Students for Solar Schools is a student-led initiative that was established with two missions in mind. The first is to install solar panels on Westlake High School, and the second is to create a network and online resource center so other students can successfully get solar power at their schools. At Westlake High School, our number one priority is the long-term sustainability of the project. After we install a 2.8kW Photovoltaic array with an online monitoring system, the project will just begin, as a new generation of students, through fundraising and working with the school district, will ensure the addition of more panels each year until the school has reached grid parity. Besides measurable environmental benefits and cost savings, solar panels on schools have the immense potential to inspire green lifestyle changes and actions that make the school more energy efficient and environmentally responsible. Already, Students for Solar Schools has raised over $5,200, negotiated free installation, confirmed the weight bearing capacity of the roof, gained the approval of the school board and engaged the community in our project. We also developed a website and, through it, sparked a movement expanding to over a dozen schools where we are currently sharing our knowledge and resources with in the continental US, Canada, Puerto Rico, and Africa. Our dedicated club at Westlake works each week to further our vision for a solar powered high school and enable our peers across the globe to do the same.
The environmental impact of our initial solar panel array, on track to be installed in December will offset 166,000 lbs of Carbon Dioxide, 530 lbs of Nitrogen Dioxide, and 480 lbs of sulfur dioxide over the 25-year warranty of the panels as sourced by Clean Power Research LLC. This is the equivalent of planting 1.4 acres of trees or not driving a car 280,00 miles. All these environmental benefits come from our initial array that will power 3 classrooms, and possibly the entire school during the summer. With students campaigning for more solar power each year at Westlake, the positive environmental impact will vastly increase. Also, if our efforts to help other schools go solar proves successful we will further multiply our impact.
Students came up with the idea for the project, not the school. However, the school has been extremely supportive and connected us with all the necessary district personnel required for approval of the construction and inspection process. The school helped us form and official club and assisted us in all of the financial transactions of the donations we’ve received. The idea of the project came as I was traveling home from a forum on global warming legislation. I realized there wasn’t time to wait on government policy to solve the problem, and I needed to take it upon myself to do what I can now, as a teenager, to fight for sustainability.
I started the project with a petition to see if the student body would support a campaign for solar panels. As an unexpected result, several students tracked me down and expressed their wish to help form Students for Solar Schools. Beginning as only four juniors meeting last November, our club would eventually grow to encompass a diverse coalition of students, brought together under the common goal of installing solar panels on Westlake High School. With the petition complete, the initial group met with our principal, Director of School Activities, District Energy Manager, Superintendent, Director of Planning and Facilities, District Roof Manager, Mayor and School Board. We then received competing bids from two solar contractors, and we were able to negotiate a price that included free installation with one of them. Later, we created the SSS website www.studentsforsolarschools.org  . We then conducted a successful coin drive at our school raising over $500. We also had a door to door campaign, pitched to local businesses, won a small grant, convinced other school clubs to pledge donations and secured funding for an online monitoring system. The local Mexican restaurant, Sea Casa agreed on October 6th to donate 25% of its revenue that night to Students for Solar Schools. So many students showed up that a line wrapped around the building and the restaurant ran out of rice and beans! That brought our total to $5,200, and the very real possibility that we may exceed our target and power even more classrooms. We’re less than thousand dollars short of our initial goal to bring solar power to Westlake High School, and perpetuate the movement we’ve started.
Westlake High School approved the project and the principal connected us with the district personnel that would need to be involved with the approval, construction, and permitting. The school opened its conference room up to us to hold meetings with district officials about the project. The school also approved the Students for Solar Schools club. The associated student government allowed us to make posters for free in its room.
Students took the initiative and developed this project almost entirely on their own. I am very thankful for our club teacher adviser and all the other adults who worked with us, yet each one of them would reiterate, that the student leaders were ultimately responsible for driving this project forward. One of the main benefits of Students for Solar Schools is that each year students are trained to become environmental leaders by heading complex campaigns and fundraising operations while still only teenagers in high school. Students brought the district faculty together to work out the specifics of construction and approval, brainstormed fundraising ideas, turned them into reality, wrote grant proposals and connected the solar contractors with the district.
The sustainability of this project can be achieved by overlaps in student leadership, the constant guidance of the teacher adviser, and the sense of responsibility to the overall Students for Solar Schools network. Now an official club on campus that includes both Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors and Seniors, the stability of the group is secured for at least the next three years. The transition of student leadership, and the ability to keep up the motivation to fundraise or push for large scale solar contracts might be more difficult farther in the future. However, with the same, dedicated teacher adviser, continuity can be established through the leadership cycles. Also, besides the physical solar panels as a constant reminder, integration with a larger network of students to encourage one another will ensure the sustainability of Students for Solar Schools project at Westlake.
We engaged our community through local events that Students for Solar Schools participates in and plans to host. We had a booth at the 2009 Thousands Oak’s Earth Day Fair where we shared about our project to those from Westlake Village and Thousand Oaks. We addressed the Thousand Oaks Youth Commission with a twenty-minute presentation about solar energy and the project. We set up a booth in front of Whole Foods to get the word out about our project and the educational benefits. At the kid’s fair there, we had coloring sheets about solar energy and taught them how solar panels work (in a simplified manner). We plan on making a presentation to Westlake Elementary and Colina Middle School about environmental responsibility and our project. We’re also looking forward to have a special spot in the October Street Festival. We’ve already arranged to speak at the local EARTHS Magnet School in our Conejo Valley Unified School district about Students for Solar Schools. Finally, all student members of SSS at Westlake are required to do at least two local community service events a year.