The dawn of solar exploration.
There’s a magical moment each day just before the sun comes up. The first rays of light paint the sky’s blank canvas with a brilliant palette of hues so incredible, it hardly seems real. And as the sun finally peers over the horizon, you catch your first glimpse of this new day filled with unlimited possibilities and a limitless resource rising right before your eyes.
Big things usually start small, and bringing renewable energy into our lives is no different. That’s why Westar Energy began exploring solar energy with private, small-scale pilot programs across Kansas to better understand solar and its potential in our state.
In cooperation with the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, Westar offered grants for nonprofit organizations to build and install solar arrays to help all of us learn about capturing energy from the sun, exploring the possibilities and providing more clean energy for our state. Plus, Westar joined in by installing solar arrays on several of its own buildings.
“I think the potential for Kansas to go solar in a big way is there,” said Patrick Attwater. “And I think it’s going to happen in the near future.”
Patrick would know. He’s the CEO of One80 Solar, a commercial solar energy company that designs, engineers, finances and builds commercial solar power plants. His company worked with several of the nonprofits that received grants to design and install these private solar projects, which included educational components to help people learn about solar energy.
“These grants were a very unique opportunity that were presented,” Patrick said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen where a utility company gave away solar arrays like this to educational institutions.”
When you hear Patrick talk, you can’t help but get wrapped up in his energy and optimism. You feel the excitement in his voice as he speaks about the future and what these projects can do for kids in Kansas. He’s a Kansas boy himself who was born and raised in Wichita. As a kid, Patrick frequented many of the places that received grants, so he was thrilled to help install solar arrays for the Sedgwick County Zoo, the Great Plains Nature Center and Derby North Middle School.
“Fifty years from now, we may all look back and just be amazed at how much of our power we’re getting from solar and wind.”
“Just from the people I talk to at Westar, everyone is very interested in this,” Patrick said. “They know that this is going to be a big part of the future.”
It’s no surprise that Patrick believes the future of solar is bright in Kansas. He also thinks that wind and solar energy will be part of the renewable energy solution moving forward. The strongest winds come at night and the bright sun comes during the day, so they play well together and provide an opportunity to generate clean energy day and night.
“Fifty years from now, we may all look back and just be amazed at how much of our power we’re getting from solar and wind,” Patrick said.
Teaming up on renewables.
We all need energy to power our lives, and generating that energy in a clean, sustainable and reliable manner that protects our state for generations to come will take more than just one energy source. It will require multiple clean energy sources working together to create the electricity we need, while maximizing the benefit to the environment.
It’s still in the exploratory phase, but solar is the latest of the three renewable energy sources that Westar currently uses to generate sustainable energy for Kansas. Along with the wind and landfill gas, it’s part of Westar’s clean energy mix.
“We studied wind energy generation for many years before we grew it by leaps and bounds,” said Bridget Bowman. “We’re doing that same thing with solar right now.”
Bridget is a business manager at Westar who works with several of the nonprofit organizations that installed private solar arrays through the grant program. Her sunny personality matches the weather as she sits in the hot summer sun while the wind whips her short hair across her face.
She laughs and says, “We’ve got wind. We’ve got sunshine. It’s a perfect Kansas day.”
Days like this highlight why Kansas is a good location to generate renewable energy from the wind and the sun. There’s a bountiful supply of wind and a good amount of sun in our state. It’s this combination of energy from wind and solar that can help make Kansas a cleaner place to live.
Westar has had great success harnessing power from the wind. In fact, Westar grew its renewable energy production by 480% in the last 10 years. That’s a lot of clean energy for Kansas. And right now, Westar’s solar energy development is exactly where wind energy was 10 years ago.
“I want the world to be a better place and the planet to be cleaner for my grandchildren and for their grandchildren.”
“We don’t know for sure what part solar will play,” Bridget said. “But we do know that it will be an important part in our renewable mix in the future.”
For Bridget, the next generation is a big part of that future. Her granddaughter is a fourth grader, and she sees that this younger generation deeply cares about things like recycling, clean energy and saving the planet. She says they’re not even learning it—it’s just ingrained in them. She’s thrilled to see their enthusiasm is catching on.
“I want the world to be a better place and the planet to be cleaner for my grandchildren and for their grandchildren,” Bridget said.
That’s one of the big ideas behind this program. Westar sought partners who wanted to include educational components as a part of the solar installations. The result is that Westar is learning about solar along with these people and organizations who received the grants.
Bridget has seen many of these solar arrays built from the ground up, and has experienced the effect they have on the people who interact with them. She sees how kids are drawn to these solar installations, which gives them an opportunity to learn about energy from the sun in a real-world setting.
“That is really, really exciting because these kids are learning and they don’t even know they’re learning,” Bridget said. “We’re growing the future.”
Classrooms powered by the sun.
Derby North Middle School recently opened a brand new building that isn’t just centered around learning, it’s also centered around solar energy. The school received a grant from Westar to place solar panels in three courtyards that are surrounded by glass walls and classrooms. That means students can see the solar arrays from almost anywhere in the building.
“Now solar panels are part of everyday life.”
“People are talking about solar power now,” said Jeff Smith. “As they walk through the courtyard, they see those and go, ‘What are those? Why are they in the school? Is your school green? Where does the energy go?’”
Jeff, or Principal Smith as his students call him, is the principal at Derby North and was pleased that the grant gave the school’s courtyards such a wonderful purpose. He and the school intentionally kept the solar arrays off the roof, and instead placed them in each courtyard where students could see them. This gives kids the chance to better interact with these solar canopies and transform them into science classrooms that are powered by the sun.
Each array has an educational kiosk that shows students how much energy the panel produces in real time, and how much energy it produces each day. Having the arrays at the school has inspired teachers to bring more renewable energy curriculum into the classroom and start a solar club at the school. It’s also sparked a curiosity in renewable energy for many of the students.
“Now solar panels are part of everyday life,” Jeff said. “We need their generation to learn about this and help us solve those problems.”
A few miles up the road in Wichita, you’ll find a solar array that powers the Amphibians and Reptiles building at the Sedgwick County Zoo. It’s no coincidence that the zoo chose to use solar energy to power a building that houses animals that soak up energy from the sun.
“We thought it would be neat to have a solar-powered building with solar-powered animals,” said Ryan Gulker.
Ryan is the deputy zoo director and says the zoo was very excited about this opportunity with Westar. One of the zoo’s goals is to reduce its carbon footprint and conserve energy, so solar power was a natural alternative to power the building. The solar panels not only power the building, they also teach people about solar energy and how lizards absorb and lose heat.
“550,000 to 600,000 people walk right by the Sun Spot every year. And almost all of them pay attention to it.”
“We’re very excited to teach people that there’s an alternative energy source out there that’s a clean energy source,” Ryan said.
Ryan gets to spend a lot of time around animals, and he marvels at how these creatures turn even the most buttoned-up businessmen into curious little kids. Now, the zoo’s solar installation is starting to have the same effect.
“When the zoo opened the Sun Spot, immediately our guests started turning the solar sunflowers, touching the lizards and reading the panels,” Ryan said. “We were surprised at how well it was received.”
With all these private solar arrays across our state, more and more Kansans of all ages are experiencing solar energy first hand. It’s becoming a more common part of our everyday lives, and it helps people understand how solar energy can be a part of our state’s renewable future. As the most popular outdoor family attraction in the state of Kansas, the zoo provides an opportunity for a huge number of people to learn about solar energy.
“550,000 to 600,000 people walk right by the Sun Spot every year,” Ryan said. “And almost all of them pay attention to it.”
The sun will rise tomorrow.
Making large-scale, universal solar energy a viable reality is a huge challenge for our world, our state and for Westar Energy. These private solar pilot programs are our first step into a future where we can harness even more of our state’s sustainable resources to generate clean energy and create a better tomorrow.
It’s like finding yourself in that incredible moment just before a sunrise where you’re blissfully suspended between what has been and what’s to come. We’re living out that moment in Kansas right now.
The sun will rise tomorrow. And tomorrow, Westar will learn even more about how to harness solar energy to power our lives and protect this place we all call home.