As Hingham Middle School science teacher Andrea Stuart fiddles with the software that collects data from the high school's new solar voltaic roof panels, she sees a simple way to introduce solar power to her students.
"We're studying photosynthesis," said Stuart. "We see how plants do this; now we can see how the panels do this - use the sun for fuel."
Seeing how the sun can make electricity is what officials from the town's lighting plant and schools had in mind when they installed a small array of solar panels on the high school roof in late summer.
At 56 feet by 4 feet, the 2.5 kilowatt array covers a small portion of the roof and generates only enough electricity to power two to three classrooms. Its real power lies in its use as a demonstration of a fully operational, state-of-the-art solar installation that feeds its power into the school's grid. With the help of data-monitoring computer software installed with the panels, students and teachers are learning about transforming light into electricity.
Science teachers - including recently retired high school science department head Peter Lincoln - were instrumental in the campaign that resulted in Hingham Municipal Lighting Plant's footing the $35,000 bill for the system. The town's power utility has a stake in other renewable energy programs and a history of promoting alternative energy education.
"Twenty years ago, when I got out of college, we built oil- and gas-fired power plants," said John Tzimorangas, general manager of the lighting plant. "The kids today are going to have to build something else. These panels are to stimulate them to think outside the box."
Clayton Handleman, president of the Hingham-based company Heliotronics, which developed the Solar Learning Lab software, gave teachers a primer on using it last month.
"It's a way to get students enthusiastic about what they're learning," said Handleman. "Can they figure out how many panels it would take to power the whole school? Would they fit on the roof?"
Indeed, the interactive software has extensive information on the system, from photos of the roof array and associated hardware to a screen displaying updates of its energy output second by second.
Users can isolate certain factors - say, the sun's angle and the air temperature - and produce graphs to view how those factors affected power production in specified hours, or days, or weeks. It can calculate how much carbon dioxide, sulfur oxide, and nitrogen oxide production was avoided by using solar-generated electricity (rather than polluting sources) over a specified time. And, it can calculate which appliances the roof panels could power in a specified time period. What does it take to run an oven or an air conditioner?
Heliotronics's data-monitoring software is used throughout the state and the country, including Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One of its most recent installations, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, allows visitors to use the software inside a kiosk. Anyone with Internet access can also get information on a system's output, but the offerings are less extensive than the proprietary software sold to each school or outlet.
As teachers learn about the technology, they're developing ways to use it in the classroom.
High school science and electronics teacher Dan Clune is using the solar array to approach the entire field of alternative energy. He also uses a meter to measure the energy used by various electronics, to lure his students into thinking about electricity usage.
"We have to be conversant in the language of energy," Handleman said, as he calculated the energy consumption in the high school computer lab as quickly as some of us can count calories on a dinner plate.
"The first thing is to get the kids to get familiar with solar. I think it's really about not understanding something that stops them from getting into it," said high school oceanography and science teacher Dana Crosby.
Handleman said the solar industry has solved its early technical problems and now produces safe and high quality energy. What remains is for demand to rise to the point where the technology will decrease in price. Handleman figures the cost of solar now averages more than twice what Hingham residents pay (14.7 cents per kilowatt-hour). These prices, however, don't reflect a number of mediating factors, such as available tax credits and subsidies for going green; longer possible payoff periods based on the panels' longevity (at least 40 years); cost savings in public health benefits; and the fact that once the capital is paid off, the fuel (the sun) is free.
Industry experts generally agree that the cost of solar voltaics should become economically competitive with conventional sources sometime between 2013 and 2017.
According to Tzimorangas, that won't be a moment too soon.
"By 2012, in New England, use of electricity is going to be pushing against the ceiling of what we can provide," Tzimorangas said. "That's why these alternative energy sources, and thinking outside the box, is needed."