Science teacher Daren Blanck introduced two solar power projects to the Lake Superior School District board at the regular meeting on Tuesday, March 10.

Blanck is this year's leader of the William Kelley Schools environmental sustainability professional learning community (PLC) and part-time pastor at Zoar Lutheran Church in Tofte, Minnesota.

The first project is a collaboration among the Zoar church, students in William Kelley High School's shop classes and a young man from Peru. This past summer, Blanck got to know Ricardo, a young man from Puno, Peru working at Bluefin Bay Resorts.

"He was pretty active in our congregation in Tofte and one day, after church, he told me about a little village in Peru up in the mountains," Blanck said. "There’s a little school that doesn’t have any heat. He asked if there was something we could do with solar that could help get this little school heat."

Blanck and a few church volunteers started looking into the different forms of solar energy. Photovoltaic panels would be too costly and complicated to install, he said. It was the same for solar heating via water.

"Then I came across a design developed in the 1970s as part of the University of Minnesota's work with sustainable energy and further developed on one of the reservations in South Dakota by Red Cloud Energy," Blanck said. "It’s basically a simple box that heats air. With some aluminum that’s painted black, the box is sealed up and the aluminum heats up with sunlight energy, air passes through the box, picks up heat and flows back out through natural convection into the building."

Blanck worked with church volunteers to build a prototype, then set about working with the shop classes at William Kelley to create eight heater boxes.

The plan was to bring the boxes to Peru over spring break starting April 2, but the COVID-19 outbreak spoiled their travel plans. The project is still in the works, but will have to be completed at a later date.

Solar power opportunity at William Kelley

The other project Blanck and the environmental sustainability PLC explored this year was the impact could solar panels have if placed on the school.

"We wanted to answer the questions: how many panels could we get on our roof, how much electricity would it generate and how much would it cost?" Blanck said. "We think this type of project would do a good job of modeling sustainability to our students than smaller efforts."

Blanck and the committee's research put him in touch with the Rural Renewable Energy Alliance (RREAL), who helped determine that the school could handle an array of 592 modules, created by Heliene, a solar manufacturer from Mountain Iron, Minnesota. These modules would generate approximately 250,000 kilowatt hours per year or approximately 30% of the energy William Kelley requires. This would amount to a savings of approximately $17,000 per year.

To install the modules, Blanck said it would cost about $560,000.

"But wait, that's only if there were no grant opportunities out there to be applied to this type of project," Blanck said. "There are power purchase agreements which could be arranged, grants likely from entities such as the IRRRB [Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board] and Minnesota Power."

Through power purchase agreements, Blanck said either the manufacturer of the modules or another local industry could purchase the panels and the school could rent it for a number of years until they would take over ownership. Due to federal tax credits available, the array would end up costing less if a for-profit business made the purchase. Blanck said he hopes Norshore Mining would consider the project.

No official steps have been made on this project, but Blanck asked the board members to consider it, especially since the federal tax credit is sun setting within a few years.