Peaks Island school eyed for emergency solar power array

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PEAKS ISLAND — The island school could be home to a first-of-its-kind emergency energy power source.

A group of people including teachers and engineers met at the school library recently to start discussing the possibility of making the school the island’s designated Red Cross emergency shelter, and powering it by solar energy in case the electric grid goes down.

The group was led by Eric Hopkins, a teacher from Wells Junior High School, and chairman of the York Energy Efficiency Committee.

“What we’re talking about here has never really been done before, and we’re trying to figure out what it would take to try to make it happen, and does it make sense to make it happen here,” Hopkins said.

Currently, the public safety building on the island serves as the emergency shelter. But members of the group agreed it wasn’t an appropriate place for the shelter, given its size and how busy those working in it would be when it is needed as a shelter.

Hopkins said he is trying to pre-write a grant application, so when grants are available, the group will be able to go “with a lot of decisions already made” and a powerful presentation.

Peaks Island makes the most sense for a project like this from a business perspective, Hopkins said, because when the mainland power is down, the island is going to have an even more difficult time.

The proposal is for a pre-engineered, pre-packaged power source that can produce and store renewable energy, reduce electricity bills, and  and serve as a sustainable source of back-up power. The power would come from solar panels on the roof of the school, and would be stored in batteries kept in an outdoor shipping container.

The project is modeled after the Florida-based Sunsmart E-Shelter program, which installed solar electric emergency power systems in more than a 100 schools that serve as their communities’ emergency shelters.

Hopkins said he has been working with this project’s founder, Bill Young, to try and bring it to cold-weather climates. There are a few key differences between Florida’s project and the one Hopkins proposes.

“In Florida, they don’t have to keep the heat on,” he said. “… They also get more sun, so we have to deal with those issues.”

Hopkins said the cost of the project in Florida was around $100,000 per school. He said the cost of the project in Maine would be more, simply because more panels and bigger batteries would be needed.

He said storms are becoming “more frequent, more powerful, and more damaging.”

In Maine, he added, people tend to shelter in place. But if the shelter is no longer feasible, people need a place to go. 

“When the power goes out, the most vulnerable need to find shelter, Red Cross shelters are typically located in schools and municipal buildings,” Hopkins said. “Some shelters have backup emergency generators, but most do not.”

He also said fuel for backup generators can become scarce in times of disaster, while solar can provide necessary electricity until power is restored.

Hopkins began working on a Solar Electric Emergency Power project about a year ago at York Middle School. Thanks to a grant from Efficiency Maine, he and others were able to install a  solar array to offset energy costs from the school’s laptop computer program. He said in that year they saved the school $1,600 in electricity costs.

Island resident and community organizer Sam Saltonstall reached out to Hopkins about the possibility to taking his project in York and bringing it Peaks. Saltonstall first started thinking about energy efficiency efforts after working with the Island Institute.

He said he discovered that, although the York Middle School is the designated American Red Cross emergency shelter for the town, there was no emergency power source. That’s when he began to wonder if the newly installed solar arrays could be used to provide a minimum level of power to the emergency shelter in York. Word spread of this idea, and that’s when Saltonstall contacted Hopkins.

In addition to Peaks Island Elementary School and York Middle School, the Kittery Community Center has also been identified as a pilot project site. 

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or