About 60 school districts in Minnesota use solar energy, and they now have access to a complementary curriculum to go along with their arrays.

The Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, along with other community partners, recently developed a kindergarten through eighth grade curriculum aimed at teaching students about solar energy as a clean, renewable option for the future.

Based in Backus, the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance is a nonprofit aimed at bringing solar and other renewable energy sources to Minnesota communities. The organization’s new curriculum is a natural extension of its Solar Schools project, a partnership with the Region Five Development Commission to install solar panels with 1.5 megawatts of solar capacity at schools in Pine River-Backus and Pequot Lakes, along with both the Brainerd and Staples campuses of Central Lakes College.

Region Five acted as the grantee of a $1.9 million grant from Xcel Energy and secured a tax credit investor to fund the project, acting as the developer throughout the implementation.

While those schools that benefited began to incorporate the solar arrays into their science curriculums, John Vaughn, director of the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, said this newly developed curriculum will expound on that work and bring the same principles to other school districts, whether they already use solar energy or not.

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“It grew directly out of interest, working in classrooms and nature centers and doing community presentations,” Vaughn said during a phone interview Wednesday, April 21. “It grew out of a desire of people to have more of a consolidated curriculum for solar. And I think that’s reflective of the growing interest in solar.”

Vaughn pointed to a recent announcement from Xcel Energy about plans for a $575 million solar energy plant near the company’s Sherco coal power complex in Becker. This facility would be the largest solar energy plant in Minnesota and would provide enough electricity to power 100,000 homes in the Upper Midwest, the Star Tribune reported. When the solar plant is up and running in 2024, Xcel Energy would begin retiring its coal-fired generators at the Sherco plant.

“So it’s not only anticipating the new renewable energy economy just because people have to do it to save the planet — I think we’re done denying that it’s a problem — but there’s actual physical things happening in the big marketplace that are going to create thousands of new renewable energy jobs in the not-too-distant future,” Vaughn said. “So if you’re a kid coming out of high school, and you have enough knowledge that you know the basics of solar, you could have a fairly prosperous transition into the new workforce of the future.”

The Clean Energy Resource Team, an organization that connects individuals and communities throughout the state to the resources needed to implement community-based clean energy projects, offered up grant money a couple years ago to help fund the curriculum. Peter Lindstrom, manager of public affairs and community engagement for the Clean Energy Resource Team, said he is thrilled with the work that has been done on the curriculum.

“The reason we were excited about it then and still are excited about it today — even more excited about it today — is that so many schools are interested in pursuing renewable energy, particularly solar,” Lindstrom said. “We've seen a huge uptick in schools that are interested in moving in this direction, and so I think that these schools will be able to put this curriculum to use.”

That uptick, he said, is largely due to a decrease in the cost of solar energy in recent years and the significant financial savings it can bring to school districts. Utility bills are usually the second- or third-largest expenses for schools, behind personnel and transportation, Lindstrom said. And the more money schools can save on electricity, the more funds they can put back into their classrooms.

In a video created last year by the entities involved in the Solar Schools project, former Pine River-Backus Superintendent Dave Endicott said after the solar array was installed, the district was saving about $5,000 in utility costs. Also in the video, Ellie Malecha — an elementary science, technology, engineering, art and mathematics teacher in the district — said the addition of the solar array meant a lot to her, as she was able to introduce solar and other renewable types of energy to her students starting in kindergarten.

In the curriculum

The new curriculum is adaptable for students from kindergarten up through eighth grade and is essentially meant to be a kind of Solar Energy 101, Vaughn said. It can also be used at places like nature centers or science camps.

Lessons range from learning about the components of different solar arrays to electricity modeling using Python computer programming.

The open-sourced materials mean the curriculum is free to the public, and it means the national Next Generation Science Standards as well as Minnesota State Standards. Though it was largely developed with Minnesota schools in mind, Vaughn said the first school to actually implement the curriculum — which was completed last fall — was an elementary school in Winfield, Kansas, through a partnership with Kansas-based green energy provider Decent Energy.

“It’s our gift to the state of Minnesota and apparently beyond,” Vaughn said.

Crews work on the solar panel array in the Pine River-Backus School District in 2019. The project -- a partnership between the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance and the Region Five Development Commission -- means savings for the district and learning opportunities for students. Submitted photo
Crews work on the solar panel array in the Pine River-Backus School District in 2019. The project -- a partnership between the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance and the Region Five Development Commission -- means savings for the district and learning opportunities for students. Submitted photo

The more the curriculum is used in the classroom, the more it can be improved through feedback from teachers and students.

The basic elements can even be used for students beyond just eighth grade.

“It’s adaptable,” Vaughn said. “... As you get older, the electronics, the basics don’t change. It’s just that the presentation of it becomes more academic and with more details. So you can take this and bring it to a technical college, and it would check all the boxes of what you want to be teaching for solar at a technical college. It just wouldn’t be in that format for them. So it’s the same principles and teachings, it’s just how you package it for what age.”

Erica Bjelland, a regional development planner for Region Five who had a hand in developing the curriculum when she previously worked for the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance, said the lessons focus on hands-on learning, allowing students to essentially act as scientists themselves.

“It came at a great time to start developing a curriculum that was really locally focused but also be able to be used throughout Minnesota,” Bjelland said.

For the schools like Pine River-Backus and Pequot Lakes that already have solar arrays at their fingertips, Vaughn said the curriculum will help the students better understand the resource they have at their school.

“If you’re sticking something on top of the school’s roof, you want to be teaching kids about what it is,” he said.

For more information about the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance’s solar energy curriculum, visit rreal.org/knowledge-is-power.

THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.