CVU buzzes with renewable energy (11/19/09)

Nov. 19, 2009

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

Despite cool temperatures and sunshine filtered through milky clouds, Warren Colomb knew there was a good chance he could get his solar-powered water pump working. The Champlain Valley Union High School senior from Williston aimed a solar panel toward the sun rising above the school’s northern roof. Like magic, the pump pulled water from a clear plastic tray up through a cylindrical column. Groups of students watched as water spilled over the column and back into the tray.

“If this were a warm, summer day, this would be overflowing,” said Colomb’s friend, senior Jacob Hinsdale of Charlotte, as he helped demonstrate the pump.

The two students, members of the CVU’s Advanced Physics course, displayed their projects for the high school’s Renewable Energy Day last Thursday. The one-hour event was open to all CVU students and celebrated the school’s efforts to use more renewable energy resources on a daily basis, said Adam Bunting, the event organizer and director of Snelling Core, an academic team at CVU.

Bunting, a former student at CVU, said the new focus on renewable resources at the high school represents a “cultural shift.”

“We weren’t having these conversations when I was a student here,” he said.

It’s a change physics students embraced during their project demos. Outside in the fall chill, physics students explained how their small-scale projects could be transformed into large-scale practices. Colomb said the water pump demonstration could be used anywhere in the world that has sufficient sunlight. Instead of running up electric bills, cities and towns could employ solar power to run water lines.

While students generated small amounts of energy with their projects, a new solar panel recently installed above CVU’s front entrance supplied power to the school. As part of CVU’s Renewable Energy Day, the school unveiled the solar array. The panel, which will provide about 1 kilowatt of energy per sunny day, will be a perfect learning tool for CVU science students, said science teacher Phil Surks.

The panel will be used to power one classroom’s lights and computers, “but it’s technically pushing that (electric) meter back the other way,” Surks told students.

The solar array was paid for with a grant from the ski and snowboard company Rossignol and Protect our Winters, a nonprofit environmental group.

While fellow students concentrated on solar power, Hinesburg sophomore Jake Berino said he was interested in wind. Inside the high school cafeteria, Berino displayed his mini wind turbine. When one of his friends found an old box fan within the school, the two were able to demonstrate how the wind generated power into small multi-cell batteries. Berino said his best results yielded six volts of electricity. He built the turbine using household materials.

“I originally wanted to make it out of galvanized steel,” Berino said.

Berino said much of his research focused on wind turbine design and engineering, including models built by Hinesburg-based NRG Systems. The alternative energy company specializes in wind technology.

Phil Pouech, NRG System’s director of manufacturing, praised CVU’s solar panel and the student projects as steps in the right direction for further renewable energy resources at the high school.

Speaking to students, Pouech said developing environmentally friendly designs will be a key in the fight against global climate change.

As a high school student in the 1970s, Pouech said he remembered an alternative energy craze that began during the oil shortages, but quickly ended when oil prices dropped in the 1980s. He drew parallels between 30 years ago and today’s world.

“I wonder if this time things are going to change and I think it is,” Pouech said.

Hinsdale believes his generation is already ingrained with using as much renewable energy as possible in everyday life. Standing outside the cafeteria, Hinsdale used a small solar panel to collect enough of the sun’s energy to power a motor that lifted a 20-gram weight.

“The sun can power almost anything,” Hinsdale said. “We know this.”

The sun’s power can also make for creative cooking devices. Students enjoyed cinnamon buns cooked in a solar oven and Williston senior Chris Nigh attempted to cook hot dogs by using only tin foil and a concave homemade oven. The cool temperatures slowed the process, but the project proved to be a fun experiment for the student who plans to study engineering in college.

For Colomb, the lessons he’s learned at CVU have already paid off. He plans on attending Montana State University next year to study renewable energy and physics.

“I’ve always loved physics and anything to do with it,” Colomb said. “I’ve decided to make this my focus.”