Lower 9th Ward school warms up to solar energy

Photo by David Clements -- A solar pavilion at Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School collects energy from sunlight while shading children on hot days.
Photo by David Clements -- A solar pavilion at Dr. Martin Luther King Charter School collects energy from sunlight while shading children on hot days.

A school in the Lower 9th Ward is setting a green energy example for New Orleans by bringing a massive solar energy pavilion to its campus.

The solar pavilion structure at Dr. Martin Luther Jr. Charter covers 10,800 square feet and features 397 solar panels totaling more than 8,000 square feet of photovoltaic cells.

These cells can harness enough power from the sun to supply the school with a third of its peak electricity demand. The solar panels will also reduce the school’s greenhouse gas emissions.

“The solar panels, in addition to just producing electricity for the school, are also providing shade and cover over the playground,” said Jennifer Vosburg, president of Louisiana Generating for NRG, a Fortune 300 energy company based in Houston and Princeton, N.J., which donated the solar pavilion and installed it at the school.

“It also provides an educational background so the school that’s focused on science and technology can now incorporate the solar canopy into the curriculum.”

The outdoor space also features newly installed gardens, including a special collection of Louisiana wetlands plants, courtesy of Common Ground Relief, as well as solar-powered irrigation systems provided by NRG.

“The facility is essentially maintenance free,” said David Knox, NRG director of communications. “The panels are installed at a slight angle so that rain will wash them clean. Major components are under warranty.”

Lindsey Moore, MLK high school principal, said he believes the solar installation will benefit the more than 700 children, grades pre-K to 12th, attending MLK Charter.

“One, it’s a fantastic teaching tool,” Moore said. “The second thing is that it sends a message to the community that it is a new day. That solar energy’s the way to go.”

“Right now the school is really the focal point of the community; we don’t have anything else in this community,” Moore said. “This was an old, historic neighborhood. Families have been here for generations, and they’ve passed their homes and their property from generation to generation. And Katrina was not a good thing, but Katrina did provide opportunities and new pathways to advance into the 21st century because, ‘If it’s not broke, it won’t get fixed,’ ” Moore said.

“In this community, if anything is promoted by the school, the parents will follow suit. It’s just the way it is. They look to the schools for direction with certain things,” Moore said. “And right now solar panels are the big thing. People trust in the solar panels now. So (the solar canopy) really is a learning tool and a motivator for the entire community.”

Moore also expressed hope that one day green energy technology will be as ubiquitous as drinking water.

“To these kids, solar power is going to be … something that’s commonplace and an integral part of their homes and their lives,” he said.

Vosburg agreed, saying, “It is a different generation, and I think they’ve grown up more hearing about sustainability and green energy where it is more the norm for them and so they look to it as part of their normal everyday lives going forward.”