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Maine Schools Going Solar - Not Only To Protect Environment But To Boost Bottom Lines

Jennifer Mitchell
Maine Public
Mount Desert Island High School students, left to right, Thomas Korstanje, Sirohi Kumar and Stella Walke.

More and more schools in Maine are adding solar power to their renewable energy mix. The solar panel array that's just been installed on the roof of Mount Desert Island High School is the largest so far on a public high school in Maine, and will provide more than enough power to meet its demands. Student supporters of the project are hoping that others will be encouraged by its example. Amid a drum roll and cheers from the crowd Wednesday, MDI High School went solar.  And the kids here are really, really excited about what that means.

"We're the ones that are impacted. This is our future," says senior Thomas Korstanje. "And it's our responsibility - along with the responsibility of everyone else - but we need to take part." Korstanje says it's been frustrating to witness the lack of cohesion in government efforts to tackle the issue of climate change. 

Junior Stella Walke blames partisan politics.

"The fact that climate change is becoming such a political issue - I don't understand why," Walke says. "It's science, it's facts. The climate is changing and things are happening. Get rid of all the bias and just focus on the facts and see that things are happening, and that we need to take action to slow the effects of the crisis."

"This is not a political issue, it's a human issue," Korstanje says.

Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public
Maine Public
Mount Desert Island High School celebrates going solar Wednesday, in a ceremony at the school.

The new 425-kilowatt array installed on the school's roof by Sundog Solar of Searsport, and facilitated by local climate action nonprofit, A Climate To Thrive, consists of more than 1,400 panels.

"Yeah, this is not a smoke and mirror or - all our energy needs, and then some, are going to be met,"  says Superintendent of Schools Marc Gousse.

Gousee says the array will generate more than enough power for the school and its 550 students, and will continue to pump clean power onto the grid all summer long.  He says supporting clean energy and actually moving the needle on climate change is the main reason behind the effort; in fact, it was inspired by a student's senior class project in 2017. 

But he says it's also true that the sun is going to be good for the school's bottom line. "It's going to mean an impact over the next 20 years, of a savings of over $1 million - which, when we talk about resources, those are  resources that we're able to look at devoting to other programs and teaching and learning in our communities."

For students focused on climate change, it's just one example of the kinds of steps that need to be taken if local, state, and world climate goals are to be reached. Locally, A Climate To Thrive group has set a target for the island of Mount Desert to be generating 100% of its energy - clean energy - by 2030. This year, the state of Maine adopted goals to reach 80% renewable power by that same year, when global warming could reach catostrophic levels, according to a United Nations climate report.  

"Even though it seems like this is a hopeless issue - I know I've struggled a lot with thinking that: 'Why am I even doing this? Why am I wasting my prime years of my life thinking about this issue that's so big?'" says sophomore Sirohi Kumar.

Kumar says changing the big stuff means doing what you can. "These small events, like our ribbon cutting - you know, changing from plastic straws, changing from plastic silverware - these small events really add up and make a change. So even though it feels day-to-day like it's hopeless, don't give up."

Efforts to bolster renewable energy capacity are underway at other public schools as well. Camden Hills Regional High School already has solar panels on its roof, plus a wind turbine. Students at Belfast High School also put forth a proposal this year. And in Portland, the school board has greenlighted a project that would cover up to 80% of the district's energy needs and could potentially save the school system $50,000 per year.

This story is part of a week-long reporting project “Covering Climate Now,” by Maine Public and more than 300 other news outlets around the world. The series comes in advance of the United Nations Climate Action Summit on Monday Sept. 23 in New York. More information here.

Originally published 7:54 a.m. Sept. 19, 2019