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School District soars into the future on solar energy

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By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer

BIG SKY – The spring of 2017 saw the installation of Big Sky School District’s 7.125 kW solar photovoltaic array on the south-facing roof of Ophir School. The system—an array of solar panels that looks down on the playground—along with a digital kiosk run by Bonneville Environmental Foundation displaying the energy data, exposes Big Sky youth to the possibilities of renewable energy.

Located near the gym in Lone Peak High School, the kiosk shows how much energy the solar array generates, allowing students to view output in real time and over time.

Also accessible online, the data shows that in the past 19 months, the array has generated more than 12,5000 kilowatt-hours of energy, enough to power an average home for 1 year or a TV for 12 years. The greenhouse gases avoided amount to about 17,700 pounds of carbon dioxide.

“We thought it was going to be cool idea,” Big Sky School District Superintendent Dustin Shipman said. “We wanted to be able to teach the kids about renewable energy options and what better way to do that when you have it right there in your own system.”

The community came together to bring the educational opportunity to fruition. Lisa Lillelund of Mango Networks coordinated funding for the $39,000 project, garnering a $29,000 Universal System Benefits Renewable Energy Grant from NorthWestern Energy. She said the project would have fallen flat without work by Energy 1, who procured and installed the solar array for a nominal fee, and two private donations from the Bulis family and Highline Partners.

“Alternative energy—especially solar—is a no-brainer in this nation,” Rob McRae of Highline Partners said. “I do think that in 10-15 years, there’s going to be tremendous growth in that industry.”

That growth is already evident. According to a September report by the Solar Energy Industries Association, in the second quarter of 2018 U.S. market installations of solar photovoltaic arrays increased by 9 percent, year-over-year, and in the first half of the year, 29 percent “of all new electricity generating capacity brought online in the U.S. came from solar PV.”

“I think people appreciate and love Big Sky because of its beauty, but the integrity of this place depends on being more environmentally friendly and having sustainable practices,” Ania Bulis said. “This [array] was an opportunity to send the right message to our children.”

Although the array doesn’t significantly offset the school’s energy costs, it sets a precedent in the community, beginning but not ending with education. Bulis thinks the next step in the right direction would be a long-term sustainability plan for Big Sky that all community members can get behind.

A next step for the school district could be more ability to function off the grid. “We would love to partner with any organization in order to expand our use of renewable energy,” Shipman said.

Visit to view live data from the Ophir School photovoltaic array.

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