Community Solar Education

NLI employees’ children tour the utility’s community solar array. From left are Finley Cottier, Tatum Cottier, Sophia Sears, Zach Sears, and Lucy Sears.

During summer 2017, Northern Lights Inc. (NLI) installed a community solar facility at its Sagle headquarters. The project was partially funded through grants.

Members subscribed to 286 units of energy. Subscribing members receive bill credits for their portion of power produced at the facility. This has allowed members interested in solar energy to have a share of it without having to install panels at their homes.

All of the energy units have been claimed, and NLI does not have plans for expansion. The solar facility’s maximum output is 50 kilowatts, which is enough to power three to five homes, depending on the time of year and electrical use.

A student races the solar car she designed. Photo by Elissa Glassman

One of the benefits of the solar facility is to educate young people through school field trips. Last year, the co-op hosted around 30 classes. Typically, the field trips are for sixth graders in the areas NLI serves.

A retired teacher leads the students. One of NLI’s engineers explains the layout and angle of the panels, helping students understand how panels are configured and spaced to avoid shadowing and maximize sunlight exposure.

Students learn how different weather events—such as snow, clouds and a solar eclipse—can affect output.

Students get an overview of the electric grid and learn the difference between alternating current and direct current. At the end of the tour, they can ask the engineer questions.

NLI Tree Foreman Travis Cottier teaches his daughters, Finley and Tatum, about basic circuits with a hands-on activity. Photo by Elissa Glassman

They usually come up with some great ones, such as, “Does a full moon generate power at the solar facility?” The answer is no, but it is a good question.

The kids then get hands-on experience with tiny solar panels and build experiments. The highlight is designing a solar-powered car and racing it against classmates.

NLI will host classes this spring for area students. Field trips are scheduled in the spring and fall. At times, NLI offers tours during member events at the Sagle headquarters, including during the annual meeting in June.

The community solar facility has given back to the community in both energy produced and educational benefits.

Kristin MettkeNorthern Lights Engineering & Operations Manager Kristin Mettke is an electrical engineer and has worked in the electric utility industry most of her career.