New solar panels have been installed on the roofs of two more Bozeman schools and soon they will start to make electricity to run the schools, save taxpayers money and offer energy lessons for students.

The latest installation at Hyalite and Meadowlark elementary schools brings to four the number of solar power systems in the Bozeman public schools.

It cost about $63,000 each for the 53-kilowatt systems at Hyalite and Meadowlark, said Todd Swinehart, facilities director for the school district.

They should generate enough electricity to offset 20% to 25% of each school’s electricity needs.

“We’d start to make money after seven years. It’s free power at that point,” said Richard Parker, the school district’s building systems energy manager and self-professed “energy nerd.”

The new panels will be turned on after a building inspection from the city of Bozeman and submitting paperwork to NorthWestern Energy to credit the building when it produces more electricity than it uses.

The projects were paid for from three sources: a $48,000 grant from NorthWestern Energy’s Universal System Benefits Renewable Energy program, regular school building repair funds passed by local voters, and money left over from students’ fundraising to install solar panels at Sacajawea Middle School.

Led by student Claire Vlases and a group of kids called Solar Makes Sense, Sacajawea students raised $118,000, including an $80,000 donation from the Kendeda Fund. Sacajawea’s 50-kilowatt system was installed last year, costing around $78,000.

A fifth solar array will go up this summer at one of the district’s biggest energy-using buildings. The Support Services Building, at North 11th Avenue and Durston Road, uses big refrigerators and cooking stations to prepare meals for Bozeman kids.

Originally, Swinehart said, the school district sought grants to install solar at four elementary schools. NorthWestern Energy OK’d grant money for just one school. But the school facilities team figured that the district had enough money to install solar at a second school and the school board agreed.

They chose the two newest school buildings, Hyalite and Meadowlark, where the roofs can easily support the additional weight. Bozeman Green Build installed the systems.

“Morning Star and Emily Dickinson are next,” Swinehart said. That is, if the school district can land more grant money. Free grant money cuts in half the number of years it takes for the systems to break even, so they plan to keep applying for grants.

Sacajawea’s solar array is connected to an information kiosk with a TV display near the middle school’s front entry so students, teachers and visitors can see how much electricity is being produced.

The system’s track record is also posted on Sacajawea’s web page. Parker pulled up the page on his laptop to show how much energy the system produced on a sunny June 5, as well as a partly cloudy June 6.

“It’s a really good teaching tool,” Parker said.

When it snows, that temporarily covers up the solar panels and halts their energy production, until the snow melts off naturally.

Construction of Bozeman’s new high school is about 55% finished and so it’s too soon to tell whether there might be enough money to install an array at Gallatin High, but the building will be ready for solar, Swinehart said. Plans for renovating Bozeman High also call for making a roof there solar-ready.

Meanwhile, Gallatin High will have a geothermal heating and cooling system, which will pull in 55-degree water from underground to help warm the school in winter and cool it in summer.

“Our goal is each and every one of those kids is in a good environment” with plenty of fresh air and comfortable temperatures for learning, Swinehart said.

“At the end of the day we’re saving taxpayers money,” he said, “and showing this is the desire of students and staff, who wanted to be environmentally conscious.”

Gail Schontzler can be reached at gails@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2633. Follow her on Twitter @gailnews.

Gail Schontzler covers schools and Montana State University for the Chronicle.

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