Solar Vision | OEC News

How solar panels impact Norman Public Schools

As the sun reaches tendrils of its light towards the earth,large solar panels track them, rotating as the sun rises and sets each day.

Solar power is making notable progress as the renewable energy sector continues its rapid growth. Homes with solar panels attached to their roofs are becoming less of a surprising sight in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, around 4% of homes adopted this renewable energy source with an increasing growth rate each year.

This is true right here in central Oklahoma.

“We’re seeing exponential growth in the homeowners who add solar to their house,” said Nick Shumaker, OEC manager of system engineering. “Currently, about 500 of our 60,000 accounts have installed solar at their homes.”

While the number is small, the increase in installs from year to year reveals a sharp rise in adoption of this technology. In 2012, OEC served just 19 solar accounts compared to 522 homes in 2022. A 1,833% increase in just over a decade. With solar energy trending up, OEC wants to ensure we are prepared for new and transitional types of energy.

“At the end of the day, we react to our members’ needs,” Shumaker said. “If our members are installing solar, if they’re buying EVs, whatever it is, we want to be part of the solution so we can remain what we have been since 1937 their trusted energy advisors and experts.”

OEC did just that after meeting with Norman Public Schools in 2019. NPS was looking for a partner to help decrease their expenses, nearly 80% of which were their facility expenses, including energy costs, Shumaker said.

“They came to us, and we want to help those in our community,” Shumaker said, “so the idea of this new solar park was born.”

Spanning 11 acres just east of Norman off Robinson Street, the park can generate an impressive 2,000 kilowatthours per hour—enough to power 350 homes annually. But how?

“Solar is unlike any other energy source we have,” Shumaker said. “Other energy sources are just turning a wind turbine or moving water to spin a turbine, but solar is a complicated chemical reaction.”

Solar panels contain silicone, which include electrical properties allowing it to serve as a foundation for electricity to flow, similar to metals in powerlines through which electricity flows from house to house, or in this case, from school to school, Shumaker said. When the sun hits silicone in the panels, photons energize and begin a frenzy of movement, creating electricity.

“The energy feeds into inverters, which take the energy generated at a direct current, or D.C., and turn it into alternating current, or A.C. power,” Shumaker said. “A.C. power is what the entire U.S. grid operates on because A.C. power is more efficient.”

A.C. power can run in multiple directions, meaning it can travel long distances, such as OEC’s extensive territory.

The A.C. power runs through a transformer contained by large, green boxes — you might see them in neighborhoods or along roads — then underground and into a pole and connects into our local grid. All that energy is used locally, Shumaker said.

“The energy from here is equivalent to the load of both NPS high schools,” Shumaker said. “So, everyone gets to enjoy it and have a touchpoint with it.”

While the energy comes easy on bright, sunny days, one of the challenges of solar is limited sunlight. During winter or on cloudy days, solar panels can produce less energy, which is why our energy partner, Western Farmers Electric Cooperative, generates power from various energy sources.

“You always need to use all the tools in your belt,” Shumaker said. “You can’t build an entire house with just a hammer, but that doesn’t mean the hammer isn’t a good tool. Natural gas and other energy sources are still a foundation, but tools like solar and wind power still help us build the house.”

OEC and NPS have partnered with the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association and the Department of Energy to continue researching how OEC can provide solar energy to members of low-to moderate-income.

Since installing solar panels on a residential home can cost upwards of $60,000, the realities of at-home solar production solar energy is out of reach for most people. The solar park, along with a 40-acre solar farm near Tuttle and the Solar Garden on Interstate 35 in Norman, allows people to experience solar power without that hefty cost, Shumaker said.

“We lease 11 acres from NPS right now, and we’re working on expanding to 15 acres for an educational pavilion, so we can provide tours and opportunities to learn about energy production for students and the public,” Shumaker said.

This partnership benefits both OEC and NPS. A statement on their website about the partnership reads: “The Norman Board of Education approved an agreement to lease district-owned land to OEC to develop the solar farm, which will reduce the school district’s energy costs and provide educational opportunities for students.”

With energy trends ever-shifting, OEC is committed to staying ahead of the curve and leveraging efficient renewable solutions for our members. We will continually strive to deliver exceptional service through innovative operations.

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