Catching some rays

Northport Public School senior Caleb Brown said that his solar array project will be complete by mid-summer.

TRAVERSE CITY — Not all high school science projects come with a $25,000 price tag.

Senior Caleb Brown admits his idea to install solar panels at Northport Public School is ambitious. The required paperwork and permits alone is bewildering. But when he tacked on the thousands of dollars needed to get the senior project off the ground — the concept seemed unfathomable.

“Once in the middle of the year, I was starting to think I didn’t know how I was going to raise all this money,” Brown said.

Brown’s plan calls for a 7-kilowatt dual-axis tracker array on the grounds near the school. It will capture sunlight to provide about three percent of the district’s $40,000 annual electricity bill, and serve as a learning tool for generations of students to come.

The only obstacle: solar panels aren’t cheap. Brown soon realized he would need to pursue grant funding or community donations to cover the costly project, and he only had a year to do it.

His plan became reality this month as the Leelanau Township Community Foundation approved more than $12,000 for Brown’s project — tipping him more than $3,000 over his initial cost estimates and into the final planning stages.

Northport Public Schools’ Board of Education earlier in the month approved $16,000 for the project.

“We were very impressed,” said Ruth Steele Walker, the chairwoman of the Community Foundation. “There are a lot of people in Northport focused on reducing our dependence on non-renewable energy and that’s something that we as a foundation see as a real benefit to the community.”

The Community Foundation doles out grants annually in a broad effort to improve the community. Scholarships, charitable organizations and schools are regular targets of the foundation's generosity. Steele Walker said Brown’s idea was an ideal place for the funding.

“We’ve always been concerned with the environment in Northport,” she said. “There’s also the educational piece of it that motivated it as well. Our kids do some great projects that have never been seen before.”

Brown is working to complete construction, electrical and other permits for the final leg of his senior project. He gives credit to the strong mentorship from school and community leaders, and hopes to have the solar panel array in place by mid-summer.

“It’s longer-term in terms of investment, but we believe there are a lot of added benefits in terms of interesting future students in the field of sustainable energy,” Northport Schools Superintendent Chris Parker said. “There are lots to connect to as far as the curriculum goes.”

Brown recognizes that three percent isn’t a significant reduction to the school’s utility bill but said the scope of his project will extends beyond the immediate impact.

“With projects like this, any size project that you do is helping the environment,” Brown said.