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Schooled in solar

BOB BERWYN
summit daily news
Summit County, CO Colorado
Summit Daily/Bob Berwyn
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SUMMIT COUNTY ” Summit Cove fifth-graders may not have all the answers, but when it comes to solar energy, they’re ahead of the curve.

As part of a science unit, Ryan Mihm’s class has been learning all about the power of the sun. Last week, students filled a black plastic bag with air and wrote down their observations as the sun heated the bag, causing it to float into the air.

Later, they shaped their notes into an expository paragraph, combining science with writing.

And this week, the 10- and 11-year-olds heard from Joe Burdick, who schooled the class on the latest in photo-voltaics.

“I used to be a scientist, now I’m a roofer,” Burdick said, describing his work designing and installing newfangled shingles that convert sunlight to electricity.

“Have you ever been to a mall?” Burdick asked, drawing a roomful of waving hands.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if we could cover the parking lots with solar panels,” he said, describing one of his ideas to speed the transition to renewable energy.

Burdick began by explaining the difference between fossil fuels ” coal, gas and oil ” and renewables like hydropower, solar, geothermal and biofuels, as some of the students found good answers to his rapid-fire questions.

“Who figured out that the earth revolves around the sun?” Burdick asked, laying the groundwork for his presentation.

“Galileo!” said Cait McCluskie, answering a question that would stump many adults.

Going on to explain the history of photo-voltaics, Burdick told the class they’re not going to be in fifth grade forever.

Ancient Egyptians and the Anasazi of Mesa Verde understood the power of the sun, designing their cities and monuments with a clear understanding of how they could benefit from positioning structures to make use of the heat and light.

It was in 1949 that scientists created the first device made of silicon that “did some funky things,” Burdick said, drawing chuckles from the youngsters. The first solar cell was made in 1954, he added, showing that solar energy is reaching middle age.

With current tax credits and rebates available for installations, the time has never been better to consider more widespread applications, he said.

“You’re going to slowly move our society toward renewable energy,” he told the class. “We’re running out of fossil fuels.”

“How much does it cost to make these?” asked Justine Lorch, passing along a thin slice of photovoltaic panel that can be used in place of a regular roof shingle.

“It probably took about 10 years and about $100 million in research,” Burdick answered, explaining that the latest generation of panels can convert about 20 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity.

The thinner units aren’t quite as efficient as the bulkier models, but only cost about half as much to produce, making the solar energy more cost effective than in the past, he added.

Bob Berwyn can be reached at (970) 331-5996, or at bberwyn@summitdaily.com.


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