Alternative Energy Learning Experience

Students in Central Florida learn about alternative energy at the Solar Energy Center.

January 19, 2012

Susan T. Schleith manages SunSmart E-Shelters, which installs solar panels at schools.

Florida's Solar Energy Center in Brevard County is creating jobs, powering emergency shelters, reducing school expenses and getting young people excited about solar energy in one fell swoop.

Solar Energy Center

The Solar Energy Center, founded in 1975, is on the campus of Brevard Community College in Cocoa. The largest state-supported renewable resource center in the nation, it employs about 150 scientists, researchers and staff. The University of Central Florida oversees the center.

Launched in 2010 and funded by a $10-million federal stimulus grant, the SunSmart E-Shelters program pays for the center to install off-the-shelf, 10-kilowatt solar photovoltaic panels on public school campuses.

The program's benefits start with the jobs created for those who install the panels. Schools use electricity from the systems during school hours, saving up to $1,500 a year per school. The PV systems, connected to local utility grids, are now at more than 90 schools in 42 counties.

The 90 campuses also serve as designated shelters for hurricanes and other emergencies. If the power goes out, the solar panels will keep at least some lights and electrical outlets functioning. Backup batteries kick in when the sun goes down.

Students benefit because the PV panels are placed at ground level, where they can study solar power and learn about renewable resources close-up as they track their schools' energy use, says Susan T. Schleith, manager of the SunSmart program.

Schleith, who described SunSmart during the annual Florida Energy Summit in Orlando in October, says the program provides a hands-on element in addition to what students and teachers at participating elementary, middle and high schools experience in their classrooms.

"We need students who understand science and technology," says Schleith, who also coordinates programs where students build solar- and hydrogen-powered robotics and devices.

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