Beacon News 


Beacon News 4-5-2012


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Eighth-grade students Emily VanderMoere (left) and Sam Chan test wind turbines that they designed and built to see how much electricty they can produce. Hinckley-Big Rock Middle School has installed both solar panels and a wind turbine, which produce electricity for the school. Eighth-grade students not only collect and analyze data from these power sources, but they also learn about different energy sources, build wind turbines, solar cars, solar cookers. | Photo courtesy~Matt Olson

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BIG ROCK – Hinckley-Big Rock Middle School is shining more light on a program that lets students explore alternative energy sources while saving taxpayers money on electricity.

A new bank of solar panels installed on the school roof in January has doubled the amount of solar-generated electricity flowing into the school’s power grid, from 1 kilowatt hour to 2 kWh, said science teacher Matt Olson, who runs the program. The two solar banks, plus the school’s wind turbine, produce an average of 11 kWh per day – about 5 percent of the school’s electrical needs. That saves the Hinckley-Big Rock School District about $2,500 per year, Olson noted.

“You usually don’t think about using solar panels in Illinois, because we don’t get as much sun as California or the Southwest,” Olson said. “But over time, they can make a big difference in electricity costs for the average homeowner.”

Last fall, eighth grade students tracked the amount of electricity their families used in their homes and compared the results to the school’s energy use.

“I was surprised at how the homes’ uses compared to the school’s use,” said student Sophia Peters of Hinckley. “A house with our solar panels and turbine could get 50 percent or more of its power from them.”

“I was surprised by how much the school saved by having alternative energy sources,” added Madison Davies of Hinckley.

The fall project also gave students the chance to design and build their own scale model turbines. They measured the amount of electricity their models generated to determine the best design.

“I didn’t realize at first that the blades had to be slanted,” Peters said. “When I changed my blades, it really made a big difference.”

“It was hard at first, but when my team created our fan so that it actually worked, we felt so smart! It was great,” said Davies.

This spring, students will hold a fair to spread the word about alternative energy. They’ll build and demonstrate solar-powered cars and solar ovens, and present comparison charts that illustrate how much the turbine and solar panels help feed the school’s power needs. They’ll even produce infomercials touting different forms of alternative energy that residents will be able to watch on the School District website,, Olson said.

“I think it will be fun to build a solar car because I like to build stuff. It will show people that solar panels really do work,” said student Sean Gavin of Hinckley.

The middle school started its alternative energy program in 2008, when it received a $10,000 grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation.

“The foundation gave some schools solar panels to use so that others could study how it worked,” Olson said.

More grants — including $12,000 from the Clean Energy Foundation — enabled the middle school to install a 45-foot-tall turbine behind the science lab in August 2010. Since then, students have tracked and compared data from both the solar panel array and the turbine.

Olson organized a project to install a second solar panel array because the turbine produces twice as much electricity as the first array does.

“We were trying to compare apples to apples, and I wanted to find a more equal way to do it,” he said.

Though Olson didn’t win any grants for the new project, he and his students never gave up. They asked local businesses for discounts and donations of services to lower the cost to a manageable level.

“Home Depot sold the panels to us at a very generous discount, and J and K Construction of Yorkville installed them for free,” Olson said. “That brought the cost down from about $12,000 to just over $3,000.”

Students raised the rest of the money by selling energy-efficient lightbulbs through “Lights for Learning”, a nationwide nonprofit group that promotes alternative energy.

Now Olson is brainstorming ways to acquire a vertical axis wind turbine – one that’s set up like a ceiling fan as opposed to a windmill – so that students can compare how the two types of turbine work under different conditions.

While the School District will continue to save thousands of dollars each year in electricity costs at the middle school, Olson’s main goal is to inspire students to incorporate alternative energy usage in their own lives.

“When I have a house, I’ll definitely look into putting up solar panels,” Gavin said. “They pay for themselves pretty quickly.”