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The City Journals

They’ve got the power! Wasatch Charter School goes solar

May 18, 2020 11:41AM ● By Heather Lawrence

Wasatch Charter School Executive Director Emily Merchant receives a grant check to pay for the installation of solar panels. (Photo courtesy Wasatch Charter School)

By Heather Lawrence | [email protected]

Wasatch Charter School in Holladay got to have one last celebration before the soft closure of schools in March. They celebrated their switch to solar energy, made possible by a Blue Sky grant.   

“Our school opened in 2016, and throughout the design process solar panels were built in; it was always part of the plan,” said Emily Merchant, the school’s executive director. 

On March 11, the day after they’d switched to solar power, the school held an event for students. They were joined by representatives from Rocky Mountain Power, Blue Sky and Creative Energies – the company that installed the panels.

As a charter school, Wasatch has a unique curriculum that includes gardening, beekeeping and outdoor experiences. “The conversion to solar energy aligns well with the school’s curriculum and mission of environmental stewardship. It also facilitates opportunities for students to monitor solar energy production,” Merchant said. 

A screen at the school’s entrance shows current and collective data on kilowatt-hours used, CO2 emissions saved and equivalent trees planted. 

Rocky Mountain Power’s Blue Sky program is funded by customer donations. For $1.95 per 200 kWh block, customers donate with their monthly bill. Fifty percent of the donations go to wind energy projects and 50% go to solar energy. The grant covered most of the $204,000 cost of installing the 416 panels.

Rocky Mountain Power’s website reports that 131,812 of their customers participate in donating to the program, which has currently funded 148 projects. 

“One of our board members, Kevin Emerson, was really involved. He helped spearhead the grant process to get us the funding. It’s not coming from a business entity; it’s coming from the people in the community. I think it’s a great thing,” Merchant said. 

“This is a big deal. It helps cut utility costs so the school can redirect funds to educational priorities, while also shrinking the school’s carbon footprint. It provides a real-world opportunity for students to learn about science, pollution and the solutions to environmental problems,” Emerson said. Emerson was a board member from 2015-2019 and has a son who attends the school. 

At the event, students learned more about their new energy source. Company representatives handed out sunglasses and presented Merchant with a check. They also showed students photos of the school from above. 

“This was an exciting project as it not only supports renewable energy development, but enhances the educational experience for Wasatch students. We are grateful to our Blue Sky customers for making renewable projects like these possible,” said Bill Comeau, Rocky Mountain Power vice president of customer experience and innovation.

Merchant said the panels will play a role in education. “We taught students how to read the tracker and use the online portal. It’s a fun interactive piece, especially for our older students, to be able to see our school’s power usage,” Merchant said. 

Wasatch gets about 88% of their electric power from the panels. Days that have less or more sun can influence energy levels, but excess power goes back into the grid system and it averages out over time. “We’re not always using the same amount or generating the same amount,” Merchant said. 

The event on March 11 showed students an alternative energy resource in action. “Our students are interested in sustainable living and renewable energy sources. We’ve shown them we’re taking action where we can as a school,” Merchant said. 

“Practicing what we preach is really the goal. We already have a robust recycling and composting program. The compost goes into our gardening program. The food from our gardens makes its way into our kitchens and our CSA program, which is available to families at our Fall Harvest farm stand,” Merchant said.  

Wasatch’s science advisor and seventh-grade teacher Arthur Morris was excited that the school’s actions will contribute to the students’ well-being for many years to come. 

“This is a valuable story to tell. We are serving the students in so many ways as a community of teachers, families and friends. It's nice to know we are helping these children, and contributing to a brighter future by doing something good for air quality in the valley,” Morris said.