At Urging of Students, Augusta County Public Schools Goes Solar in a Big Way

Former Augusta County students Lizzie Helper (left) and Elias Nafziger (right) pose in front of Clymore Elementary School’s solar array.

Students Return from College for Solar Celebration

In March of this year, Augusta County Public Schools launched the largest solar power system at any K-12 school division in Virginia with a capacity of 1.8 megawatts, enough to power 300 homes. And it all started with two high school students who had heard that solar was now more affordable.

Elias Nafziger and Lizzie Helper were co-presidents of the student council at Fort Defiance High School in the spring of 2017.  As their final year at ACPS was rapidly approaching, they sat down for a goal-setting meeting to brainstorm how they could best leave their mark on their school.

While trying to give back to the school as well as the community, Nafziger and Helper thought it would be ambitious enough to ask their high school to install a tree structure with a few solar panels outside of the school’s front entrance, just to send a message.

Still, they were excited and proposed the idea to Fort Defiance Principal Larry Landes. Landes liked the students’ presentation so much that he encouraged them to take the idea for solar on campus straight to Augusta County Schools Superintendent Eric Bond.  And the rest was history, as they say…

Fast forward to March 6, 2019. Elias and Lizzie have graduated and have each gone onto college. But when they heard that their old school division was planning a ceremony to celebrate the installation of more than 5,200 solar panels, they accepted Superintendent Bond’s invitation to come back and speak.

At the podium, the students joined Dr. Bond, local elected officials and a representative of our company, Secure Futures. The students were interviewed by two TV stations and two newspapers.

What started as a lofty dream from two students of a few solar panels turned into hundreds of panels at seven schools that now constitute the state’s largest on-site solar energy project for a public school division. What’s more, the solar energy produced on-site is projected to save the school division $500,000 over the next 20 years in electricity costs.

Through the two-year process, the students did their homework and found out that these days, public schools could get solar on campus with no upfront capital cost and no operation and maintenance costs through a Power Purchase Agreement. Not only did students learn about practical and cost-effective ways to be sustainable, but they were also able to see first-hand how business can make a positive contribution to the environment.

Elected officials including state Senator Emmett Hanger (pictured above) and Augusta County school officials gathered in the library at Clymore Elementary School to celebrate the launch of the largest solar energy system at a K-12 school division in Virginia.

Learning and Teaching about Solar

The solar project also included an educational component. A few weeks after the solar launch ceremony, Augusta County Public School teachers gathered at Blue Ridge Community College for a hands-on session on how to bring their on-campus solar power systems into classroom lessons.  The session was led by trainers with the National Energy Education Development Project (NEED) and sponsored by Secure Futures.

Two Augusta County teachers learn how to use the NEED Project’s solar kit, which they will get to keep and use in their own classrooms.

Teachers of many disciplines and all grade levels learned how to incorporate their onsite solar energy into classroom lessons aligned with Virginia’s Standards of Learning.

Now, Augusta County teachers are equipped with the training to feed the curious minds of their students with hands-on solar energy projects.

Martha Mikell, who teaches chemistry and biology at Stuarts Draft High School, took part in the solar training session at BRCC. She said that incorporating solar energy “into our classrooms is really letting [students] see more of the world around them. I know in my chemistry class, I have a unit that’s been kind of dry, and this is going to be such a great way to make it more real world and more fun.”

Not only are students learning about clean energy to meet their SOLs, but they are now familiar with an industry with a rapidly growing workforce which they can tap into after graduation. 

“Solar energy is such a clean and simple way that we can save money, we can be better to the Earth, and it just makes so much more sense to incorporate it. But to incorporate it, you have to know about it,” science teacher Mikell said. She and her fellow teachers hope students will get excited about science, sustainability and serving the world around them, both in the classroom and in the real world, thanks to their hands-on solar energy lessons.

Stories like these are why teachers and administrators encourage their students at Augusta County Public Schools to dream big.  What started as an idea of a few solar panels for a high school turned into a historic solar energy system across our campuses. Elias and Lizzie set out to leave their mark on their school. Judging by the interest they’ve generated on all our campuses, Elias and Lizzie have set a strong example of students showing civic leadership. Their work has helped make Augusta County schools a positive example for their local community and for schools around Virginia.

Here at Secure Futures, we’re sure that these exceptional students will continue to give back to their communities in the future just as they have at Augusta County Public Schools.

We’ll close by sharing a gallery of drawings below that Augusta County students made for the solar launch celebration. Enjoy!

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— Nicole Duimstra, Secure Futures Solar

Written by: Staff Author