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Peterson Elementary Soaks Up the Sun; Solar Panels Unveiled on Earth Day

By Patty Wetli | April 23, 2014 10:04am
 Peterson Elementary unveiled a set of new solar panels, fittingly on Earth Day.
Peterson Elementary's Earth Day Solar-bration
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NORTH PARK — Peterson Elementary turned Earth Day into a "solar-bration" on Tuesday as the school unveiled its new rooftop array of solar panels, installed over spring break.

A real-time dashboard is set to go live shortly on the school's website, tallying the energy captured by the panels — a figure that had reached 6 kilowatts in just a single day, according to Zach Korth, a Peterson math and science teacher and head of the school's green committee.

"We'll put it back into the school or the electric grid," said Korth.

Funded through a grant obtained by Peterson's Parent Teacher Association, the $9,000 panels were installed on the school's green roof, itself part of a new wing that opened five years ago. Korth estimates there's room for another eight panels, if more money could be found.

"If we capture 18 kilowatts, we could cut our energy consumption by 20 to 25 percent," he said, adding that cost savings could be used to cover other expenses at the school.

Soaking up rays from the sun is just the latest in a host of green efforts under way at Peterson, which already boasts extensive recycling, composting and gardening programs.

"The things you are doing at this school are just fantastic," said Streets and Sanitation Commissioner Charles Williams, on hand to congratulate Peterson students and staff for their recycling endeavors.

Williams has been visiting schools across the city following last fall's final rollout of blue cart recycling bins.

"The goal here is to get kids to take it to their parents, and parents to take it to the community," said Williams. "The students get it very quickly. You have young leaders here — that's the fruit we want to take forward."

The city spends $38 million annually on landfill fees, a "huge number" Williams said he is "trying to reduce more and more and more."

Peterson — named after conservationist Mary Gage Peterson, who donated the land for the school — has answered the call and then some.

"For us, it comes back to our mission ... of creating community leaders," said Peterson Principal Adam Parrott-Sheffer. "We want them to understand that what they do matters."

Among those leaders: Seventh-grader Valerie Villanueva, who took Williams and fellow Earth Day guest Meredith McDermott, CPS sustainability manager, on a tour of the school's composting program.

Students collect fruit and vegetable scraps from a recycling station in the school's cafeteria, Villanueva explained, and then chop and weigh the waste before adding it to the compost heap situated off the school's parking lot.

The youngsters have learned to take the temperature of the compost first, to make sure it's active.

"It should be 20 degrees warmer than the air," Villanueva said. "In the winter, you can actually see steam rising off the pile."

She then presented visitors with the school's impressive composting results: 5,533 pounds diverted from landfill in 2011-12; 6,710 pounds in 2012-13.

"We've got a pretty large collective footprint as a district," said McDermott, who applauded Peterson's dedication to lessening waste.

For his part, Williams said he would be happy to put the sanitation side of his department out of business.

"Imagine if we can get these types of efforts city wide," he said. "All of it is saving energy, land and tax revenue."

Science teacher Susan Casey was quick to point out that "students, not custodians" are managing the program.

"The composting is daily," she said, with edible leftover produce donated to the North Park Friendship Center food pantry.

In its final stage, the organic matter is used to enrich the soil of the school's flower and vegetable beds.

McDermott said her office is trying to make it easier for schools to take the produce grown in their gardens and convert it into cafeteria food.

Through training in proper food handling, "We're working on closing that loop," she said.

Coincidentally, "eat what you grow" is the next green idea germinating in Zach Korth's head.

"We can teach kids how to garden and eat healthier," he said.

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