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Solar-Powered Gazebo First Step into a New Energy Future


It all started with a good deal on some solar panels, 20 to be exact, which then formed the foundation of a project that would end up involving nearly 25% of the student body. From drama and ballet students, to baseball and lacrosse players, 8th graders working side by side with seniors, both girls and boys, through bitterly cold weather and uncomfortably hot, the Solar-Powered Gazebo project brought together the MSA community from its very beginnings.

The plan began in the engineering classroom of Ryan Henry, who is Physics and Engineering Department Chair at Miller, and teaches both subjects and leads the Engineering Team and the Edison Power Plant Restoration Project. On day one of the engineering class in August of 2016, plans were begun on what was originally planned to be a simple shelter that had a few electrical outlets in it for students to recharge their electronics while out on campus. However, students felt that they could do better than a simple shelter and embraced the project making it their own. They envisioned a more substantial construction where those in the community could gather, and a gazebo seemed to fit that requirement perfectly.

In addition to having a finished product, another of the projects goals was to expose as many students as possible to the various faces of engineering hidden within the project parameters. Between the foundation, main structure, and roof, along with the solar-panel structure and electrical system, there are at least four fields of engineering that can be found. Geotechnical, structural, civil, and electrical, along with project and systems engineering, the students gained exposure to fields of engineering that they probably didn’t even know existed at the beginning of the school year. That exposure was the main goal of the project, with the result being a gathering place where families, friends, and classes could meet and visit with each other, all while “plugging-in” for a free device recharge.

Construction projects do not start with breaking ground, the design and planning phase is often longer than the actual build time. The engineering class spent two months learning about concrete and rebar and spent hours drawing up the design on 3D CAD (computer-aided design) software. By the end of October 2016 the group of young engineers were ready for their design review which was to be presented to a panel of other students, faculty, and administrative staff.

On November 1st ground was broken at the building site. Over the course of the school year help came from several different classes and school groups, including the applied engineering class, the alternative energy service group, the engineering team, the land management class, and any other student that wanted to lend a hand, and there were many! When you add up all the hours spent by each person, it comes out to roughly 500 person-hours, which means that it would take 1 person 500 hours to build. To put that in perspective, that’s 1 person working 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, for 3 months!

Being student driven was also an important goal of the project, there were long stretches where Mr. Henry had very little involvement or input in the progression, which was by intent. The students were reminded that any mistakes they made could be fixed and to just enjoy the process. The Gazebo project perfectly exemplifies Miller School of Albemarle’s motto of “Mind, Hands and Heart” – to be fully enriched from academic knowledge and to have meaningful hands-on learning opportunities where the success or failure of a project is in your own hands is what makes learning really stick.

And there were challenges! The group learned quickly that pressure-treated wood will warp if not properly secured in place. At one point the power distribution inverter failed. An inverter steps up voltage to 120 V, which is typical household voltage, and changes current from DC (direct current) to AC (alternating current). They also had electrical short circuits, warped columns, a few sparks, and one or two pinched thumbs.

But probably the biggest challenge was losing their electrical consultant early during the design phase. The project relied on outside expertise with regards to the electrical design of the system. However, that loss became a gain, team members stepped up in a huge way and taught themselves how to do it while utilizing other resources to double check their thinking. That experience alone not only gleaned new expertise in electrical design, but taught the team that any one engineer doesn’t know everything, but that a good engineer knows their limitations and seeks out answers to solve problems. In the end their biggest challenge became their greatest success.

By spring the structure had really taken shape and everyone was excited to help work on it, Saturdays became “work party” days and even students that had never helped before showed up wanting to take part. The Gazebo had already achieved its goal of becoming a gathering place for the MSA community.

On Monday, May 15th, the Solar-Powered Gazebo on the South Lawn was dedicated in a ribbon cutting ceremony, featuring outlets and USB ports, and furnished with built-in seating all around. Classes immediately began to be held in it as the weather warmed and indeed, it quickly became a gathering place for the community.

The completion of this remarkable project isn’t the end however, but just the beginning. When asked what might be next for the student engineers one could almost hear the metaphorical gears in Ryan Henry’s own engineering mind begin to spin faster. Next year’s building project is already taking shape in the form of a solar-powered pavilion down at the baseball field. Located on the hill just beyond the tennis courts with the Blue Ridge Mountains as a backdrop, the pavilion will serve as another on-campus gathering place to “plug-in” while taking in a baseball game, or having a cookout, or just relaxing on the hill.

Being fully energy independent like Miller was one hundred years ago when Thomas Edison first installed one of the world’s first hydroelectric turbines on campus is ultimately a goal. One which is more than feasible with 1,600 acres of campus and an abundance of sunshine, water, and wind. Henry points out that in the space of just an acre, which is roughly 200 feet by 200 feet (60 meters by 60 meters), enough solar panels can be installed to supply 100% of MSA’s energy demands. And that doesn’t account for energy consumption reduction efforts such as more building insulation and more efficient HVAC systems.

Miller School of Albemarle was at the forefront of technology and innovation in the 19th century, even appearing on the cover of Scientific American, all while giving students the hands-on experience and practical knowledge to succeed in life. The 21st century could again see MSA at the forefront with some forward thinking, a strong student-led base of junior engineers, and a little time, a project like the Solar-Powered Gazebo could evolve into a full scale solar farm. Samuel Miller was a person who thought big and planned ahead, his vision for a school of the type that became his name sake should indeed keep to that vision; look ahead, move forward, and lead the way.

View photos of the project here and here.


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