Sedgwick County school now has one of Kansas’ largest privately-owned solar power system
Updated: Feb 20, 2020
Originally published by Wichita Eagle June 12, 2019.
On Tuesday, a Sedgwick County school, Maize High School, set live a solar power system capable of producing enough energy in one day to power the school for a month.
The 720 solar panel, 240 kw (kilowatt) system is one of the largest privately-owned systems in Kansas, said Stan Bergkamp, physics and chemistry teacher, and the instigator of the project. The system is 400 feet long and 75 wide and stands in an empty field adjacent to the high school. The largest privately owned system in the state is owned by Ikea in Merriam, Kansas.
Bergkamp said the threat of climate change was one of the driving forces for pursuing the project.
“I couldn’t talk to my chemistry classes about the acidification of the oceans or the bleaching of the coral reefs and personally not do something,” he said in an email.
Once the system is paid for, it will save the school $3,200 a month, and more than $30,000 a year, as well as reduce annual carbon emissions by 240 tons, according to Bergkamp’s calculations.
In 2017, Bergkamp presented to the school board the “Maize Solar Initiative: See Beyond,” an idea to use renewable solar energy to create enough electricity to power Maize High School. He has since raised more than $160,000 of the $400,000 needed, and financed the remaining funds through ICM Inc., an ethanol plant in Colwich. The money fund-raised came from a variety of sources — including Bergkamp’s current and former students, Maize Elementary School, local businesses, and colleagues from around the world.
“It sounds strange, and it’s hard to really articulate, but this path chose me,” Bergkamp said. “I saw this as an opportunity to give back to my students, to their children, and the kids that I will never see — because I know too much science to not do something.”
The Maize district school board supported Bergkamp in his project, but the support that really struck him was that of his students, he said.
“Without doubt the strongest supporters I have are the students that I have, and kids I’ve taught,” Bergkamp said. “What I underestimated when I started the project was the emotional impact it would have on my students and how proud they are to be a part of it.”
Mary Sevart, a Maize High School 2019 graduate, helped promote fundraisers for the past year.
Sevart said watching Bergkamp’s passion for sustainable energy and eco-friendly living was inspiring, and helped her decide to study biomedical engineering at University of Kansas in the fall.
Sevart said the threats to life on Earth that are brought by climate change — rising temperatures, seas, and greenhouse gasses, shifting precipitation patterns and melting glaciers — concern her, and influenced her desire to be a part of the project.
“I think projects like these are very important to our society and for our children to survive in this world,” Sevart said. “I think we need to quickly come up with solutions to this problem (of climate change).”
Sevart said seeing the system go live after so much planning “feels great,” but knows there isn’t one answer to solving climate change, and hopes to see more sustainable systems integrated across the nation.
“I think (solar power) is a piece of the solution — there’s not one easy answer. I think (we) need to incorporate different types of energy, because you can’t just put solar panels on every single surface,” Sevart said. “If it’s cloudy all the time, like in Seattle, that’s not a sustainable form of energy.”
Sevart said she looks forward to seeing solar power systems implemented at Maize South and additional schools.
“I’d like to see it on every single school — that would be amazing,” Sevart said.
The project is a financially viable model, too, Bergkamp says.
Bergkamp financed the project through a partnership with ICM Inc., who purchased the $400,000 system, and will lease it to Maize High School for 6 years, with an agreement to pay $2,000 a month until it is paid off. Bergkamp said they chose to finance the project through ICM Inc. because the company could receive a 30 percent tax credit on the infrastructure, while the Maize school district could not.
Bergkamp said $135,000 has already been paid to the plant, leaving about $280,000 to be paid, including the expected tax credit. With the working system’s savings of $3,200 a month, he said the project should be cash positive by $1,200 a month, allowing the system to be paid off quicker.
Once the system is paid off, the plan is to do the same for Maize South High School, the second largest consumer of energy in the district, and surrounding schools, he said.
“The short-term goal would be to have every building in the district to have some type of solar energy to supplement their energies,” Bergkamp said. “The long-term goal is to use this as a model that other districts can use.”
Already, officials from Norman, Okla. and Junction City have reached out to Bergkamp about installing the system at their individual schools.
“It’s an awesome example of what happens when an educator has a dream and can show his students, and his peers and colleagues and our graduates what happens when you mix your ‘know-how’ and your passion,” said Lori Buselt, Maize school district director of communication. “To me that’s the magic of this project.”
To honor the completion of the project, Maize High School will host a celebratory “Solar Fest” on June 27.
The festival will feature Freddy’s food truck, live music, face painting and — most importantly to Bergkamp — allow attendees to walk around the system and see it function.
Bergkamp said from the beginning the theme of the project has been “See Beyond,” and the idea of Solar Fest is to celebrate that idea.
“I just want to de-mystify this idea of green energy where people can walk up ... around the panels,” Bergkamp said. “This is a celebration of a large number of people that see beyond and want to make the world better.”