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La Crosse School District Shifting to Solar Energy

The Wisconsin district's administrators gathered Monday with elected officials and other leaders of the solar installment project, which includes 292 roof panels to generate 20 percent of the school's energy needs.

(TNS) — As part of a district-wide push for increased sustainability, Northside Elementary/Coulee Montessori is the next school in La Crosse making the shift to solar energy.

With installation scheduled to begin later this summer, the school's roof will include a network of 292 solar panels capable of generating 20 percent of the school's energy needs. District administrators, elected officials and leaders of the project gathered Monday to celebrate meeting their funding goal and announce future projects.

Leadership and staff from Solar on La Crosse Schools (SOLS) also attended the celebration event. The organization partners with the school district to coordinate fundraising efforts and to help strategize for solar installation.

"Schools use about 43 percent as much power as all of the office buildings in the United States, said Ben Golden, a member of the SOLS leadership team. "It's a great place to start when we're thinking about clean energy."

The projected reduction in carbon emissions created by the solar panels is equal to planting around 160,000 trees and will save around 7 million pounds of coal, Golden said.

Northside Elementary relies on a geothermal heating and cooling system, meaning it requires twice as much electric energy as other similar buildings. This made it a prime candidate for solar energy use, according to Mike Freybler, the energy and transportation manager with the La Crosse School District.

Although the total cost for the solar infrastructure was around $239,500, the system will generate $12,000 in savings each year and $500,000 in total. The solar panels system is warrantied for the next 25 years and projected to operate at full capacity for that same time period, if not longer.

The cost of purchasing and installing the solar infrastructure was completely covered by fundraising efforts, which raised more than $100,000 to put toward the project, Golden said.

Xcel Energy, the Couillard Solar Foundation, La Crosse Community Foundation, the Midwest Renewable Energy Association, Hammond Energy Solutions and Focus on Energy also contributed grants and rebates.

While the "dollar signs" around solar energy oftentimes receive attention, SOLS co-director Heather Talbot emphasized the educational opportunities.

"When I was a kid in school, I did not know what a green job was," Talbot said. "The educational benefits of these projects cannot be overstated. Normalizing renewable energy technology for kids, it's tremendous."

Instructional staff at Northside Elementary/Coulee Montessori are using lesson plans to help inform students of future career opportunities within clean energy field and how to think about potential environmental impacts when making decisions.

"These projects demonstrate to our students what good stewardship of the environment looks like," said Amoreena Rathke, an art teacher at the school.

These initial solar projects are also about showing that introducing solar energy is feasible, according to SOLS member Alysa Remsburg.

"Part of the idea of SOLS is modeling this for the school district, getting them used to the idea of working with the contractors and all that, doing that with private money," Remsburg said. "The next step for us is to really advocate for the school district to then take this on themselves."

Golden said the installations within schools can help inform the wider La Crosse population of the advantages of and possibilities around solar energy.

"We know that when people see solar going up in a neighborhood, they get inspired and it has a ripple effect," Golden said. "We know that the city has an action plan for carbon neutrality, and so we want to be a part of that."

With many district buildings around La Crosse, increasing sustainability in schools is an important piece of the puzzle to consider, said Anders Olsen, a representative for the Climate Action Plan who attended the event.

Although the Climate Action Plan is not directly tied to installation projects within the school district, cultivating these community partners is important for "carrying out the goals" within the plan.

"If we can reduce energy use and reduce greenhouse gas emissions in our schools, that's a chunk of what we need to do as a city," Olsen said.

Other community partners include the Boys and Girls Club and the La Crosse Public Library.

The SOLS team announced plans for two future solar panel installations Monday. A 25kW solar panel array will be installed at La Crosse Polytechnic in 2023, infrastructure that will offset around 33% of the school's energy use.

A solar outdoor classroom will also be created at Summit Elementary. The canopy of solar panels will generate energy and provide shade and shelter outside, Golden said.

"We decided to really put a focus in this coming year on projects that could have an educational component to them," Golden said.

©2022 the La Crosse Tribune (La Crosse, Wis.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.