Not every school has a $2.7 million solar teaching aid

By , Special To The Christian Science Monitor

Turn left at the door of his office and look out the window straight ahead and you will see the $2.7 million teaching aid that has undoubtedly made Michael Zapantis the envy of every science department chairman in the country.

There on the hillside next to Beverly High School is an array of thousands of photovoltaic cells, the most advanced technology in solar energy.

Although the cells will provide about $10,000 worth of electricity for the school this year, their purpose is not just to keep the lights burning. Their purpose is to educate the Department of Energy, which is funding the project for three years, and the public, beginning with the students at Beverly High School.

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The project will give the Department of Energy the opportunity to see how photovoltaic cells work in the Northeast and it will give Beverly's students, and anyone who comes to the visitors' center, an unusual opportunity to learn how a slice of silicon turns sunlight into electricity.

Unlike the more familiar solar systems which harness solar energy by heating water, photovoltaic cells convert sunlight directly into electricity.

The cell, which is about four inches in diameter, is a thin water of silicon. One side is chemically treated to have too many electrons and the other side is treated to have too few. When sunlight hits the cell, it creates a flow of electrons from one side to the other and it is this flow that is collected as electricity.

That electricity is converted from DC to AC and fed right into the second. On weekends when the school is vacant it is sold to the local power company.

Data on the performance of the equipment in all kinds of weather is sent to Seattle where information on a similar project at a shopping center in New Mexico is being collected.

Researchers will be experimenting with different ways of washing the panels and with placing the panels which hold the cells at different angles to the sun.

One goal of the project is to make the public more aware of photovoltaic solar energy, according to Richard Peterson, the business manager of the Beverly schools. Photovoltaic cells could become a more common source of energy if the cost of producing the cells can be reduced, he said.

The first step in achieving this goal is to involve the high school's own students as much as possible in what is going on outside their classrooms, he said.

"It is not just going to sit out there, and it is not just going to be something that makes electricity," said Mr. Zapantis, who heads the school's science department. He and his teachers are working to integrate the project into every part of the science curriculum.

Students at the vocational school have turned a classroom near the project into a visitors' center. That center will be run by high school students who will conduct tours.

The school has been including more and more about energy in its curriculum, Mr. Zapantis said, but the panels on the hillside have sparked an interest in teachers and students and has made it all happen faster.

"We're being forced into it, which I like," he said.

During construction teachers took classes to the site and assemblies were held to inform all students of the project. Some teachers have used speakers provided by Stone & Webster Engineering Corporation of Boston, which is building the project.

Having the experiment at the school has made a difference to students, said Jerry Marsella, a senior who serves on a committee with teachers to develop the project as an educational tool.

"We could go right out there and see it," he said. "The teacher can point to it and say this does this and that does that. It makes it more real."

Workshops are being held for teachers throughout the school system so junior high and elementary school students can benefit from the project as well, Mr. Zapantis said.

Beverly was chosen for the project for several reasons, according to Peterson.

The school committee has been very interested in alternative sources of energy for many years, primarily as ways of saving money, he said.

Several years ago the committee set up an energy committee of local residents including a solar engineer who suggested the community look into grants for developing solar energy.

Beverly is a good location for the experiment, he said, because it is near Logan International Airport's weather service and is on the ocean, which gives researchers a chance to see how the equipment fares in salt air.

The high school location wil also provide information on how it fares at the hands of vandals, he said, adding that so far there has been no vandalism.

When the grant money, which will not be affected by possible cuts in the federal budget, runs out in two years, Beverly will own the field of photovoltaic cells.

How do his colleagues at other schools react when they hear about his latest teaching aid, Mr. Zapantis was asked by a visitor.

He smiled. "They drool."

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