Caitlin Kennedy, a Montclair High School graduate, Class of 2015, and current student at Kenyon College, Class of 2019, took part in a solar panel project in Belize.
We asked Kennedy to cover this High -Impact experience for the Montclair Dispatch.
“On March 7, 2017 I traveled to Belize along with ten fellow Kenyon College students, faculty, and staff to volunteer my time installing Grid-Tie Solar Power Systems in primary schools across the country. In addition to the installations, we engaged in classroom presentations on the operations and benefits of solar power systems. We successfully installed systems in five schools and one hillside resort with a total of 36 solar panels during our ten day trip.
Professor James Skon, Professor Robert Alexander, and Lisa Swaim accompanied Erin Keleske ‘18, Carolina Andrade ‘19, Hannah Hertz ‘19, Clara Altfeld ‘19, Teahelahn Keithrafferty ‘19, Meredith Glover ‘20, Nora Boles ‘20, and myself, Caitlin Kennedy ‘19 throughout Belize.”
The students, all volunteers who underwrote their own travel, lodging and other expenses, went to Belize not only to provide a community service but to get hands on working knowledge and experience in the field installing complete solar systems. They had to work as a team to lift the solar panels up to the roofs, run the cables down through the building to the inverters, batteries and hookup and test the system. The group left directly from Kenyon College for a total of ten days during spring break. One of the major goals of the Kenyon College 2020 Strategic plan under President Sean M. Decatur is the inclusion of at least two High-Impact experiences for every student across all majors during their four years at Kenyon. This Belize trip is one such High-Impact experience delivering real world hands on experience to the students. Programs like these continue to place Kenyon College ahead of the curve.
“[ These students ] will continue their project at Kenyon by following live data indicating how much power the panels are generating and how much money they are saving the schools,” said Mary Keister, Director of News Media Relations for Kenyon College
The students on the trip weren’t all declared Environmental Science (ES) majors, but this trip is a good example of how high-impact projects can inform the new ES major, which will be interdisciplinary in nature. The Environmental Studies major at Kenyon College is brand new, literally, This past January, the full faculty of Kenyon College formally approved the elevation of environmental studies from a concentration to a major.
“I first started taking students abroad for service learning activities in 1988. A year before that trip two other professors and I together began exploring the possibility of a month long credited class that would focus on having the students taking what they were learning in class, and finding appropriate ways for them to apply that knowledge in practical collaborations with people and organizations in developing countries,” said Professor Skon.
After doing some research and investigation, Professor Skon was contacted by Dwight Tillett, then a high school principal, who suggested that Belize has great possibilities for such an experience. Belize, at the time, was largely undeveloped, spoke English, and was only a couple hours flight from Miami.
After delivering over a thousand computers to schools in Belize between 1988 and 2014 Professor Skon began to hear distressing news. Although the schools loved the Computer labs and learning opportunities it provided for the students, their extremely small budgets, often made it difficult to pay for the increasing power bills caused by the new labs. Electricity is expensive in Belize, 3-4 times the cost of electricity in the USA.
Solar Power to the rescue.
“At the same time I noticed that the costs of solar panels were dropping sharply, the historical price of over $500 for a 250 watt panel had dropped to about $200 a panel and was falling. The current price for a 250 watt panel is now less than $100 shipped. Seeing this I reasoned that we could enhance the grid power by adding solar power to the schools. My computations showed that the system should pay for itself in only a few years, and thereafter the power provided would essentially be free. The typical life of a solar panel is 20-25 years,” said Professor Skon.
This concept, of merging solar power with power from the power company is called a “grid tie power system”. In this system, the power generated from the solar panels is used first, and any additional power needed will still come from the power company. The net effect is to offset the cost of the electricity by providing additional power from the grid (the power company).
“Once I came up with this solar plan, I was able to raise about 1/2 of the cost of the 5 power systems we wished to install. The plan was to ask the school to raise the other half of the money. The idea here was to create a situation where the school had some skin in the game and was truly committed to the project. Also, we made a deal that if the school could not pay the full amount requested before the install, they could pay off the remainder after the install, using the money saved on electricity,” said Professor Skon.
Through Professor Skon’s efforts, he was able to raise the money from Harcourt Parish church in Gambier, along with the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio. He hopes that the project will continue, first bringing solar power to schools in Belize, while also providing a model for other schools and businesses in Belize. He believes that the project with Kenyon students provides a rich opportunity to learn about solar power systems, to engage in meaningful work outside the country, and to learn about and consider how they might establish a lifelong goal of meaningful collaborative service in settings where their expertise, whatever it may be, might make meaningful contributions around the globe.
All photos: Courtesy of Caitlin Kennedy, Kenyon College Environmental Studies Major, Class of 2019.