LONE ROCK - Lone Rock School - the oldest continually run school in Montana - is set to become just the second school in the state to launch a solar power initiative under a program administered by the Bonneville Power Administration.
Bonneville Environmental Foundation, through its Solar 4R Schools program, approved an application last week to bring a solar photovoltaic system to the K-6 school that has educated children on the Bitterroot Valley's eastern steppe since the 1880s.
The push toward renewable solar power has long been on the mind of Lone Rock Superintendent Dave Cluff.
"I can't believe it," Cluff said Monday, when a Bonneville official told him the school might receive a bigger system that could include as many as 25 photovoltaic modules (as solar panels are now called by industry officials). "We've wanted to do solar (model cars), solar anything, but it costs a lot."
The project, which was initiated jointly by the school and Ravalli Electric Co-op, requires a $5,000 match from the project's local partners, including the school district, the co-op and whichever solar energy contractor wins the bid to install the system.
Bonneville will foot the rest of the cost and will bring the school a touch-screen display for a kiosk that will give students and teachers up-to-the-minute feedback on how the system is doing as it converts solar radiation into power for lights and computers.
The cost of the entire project could run upward of $35,000, according to Craig Collins, a project engineer for Bonneville Environmental Foundation.
Collins said he was planning to expand the size of the project to fit the school's gymnasium roof.
In the end it's worthwhile, he said, because Bonneville has the funds to do it and the new system will be an excellent teaching tool for the benefit of both students and the wider community.
"That is essentially what our charter is: to foster the widespread adoption of renewable energy, as well as to promote education about renewables," Collins said.
On the education side of things, the teachers can begin working immediately on how they would implement a solar power curriculum into their classes, Collins said. Bonneville will supply lessons and will offer training to help them dovetail the photovoltaic system and its kiosk into their teaching.
On the construction side, the project will now go out to bid.
Collins met Tuesday with a group of solar power contractors to go over the basic outline of what their bids should entail.
And if all goes well, Collins said the school should be generating power from its system before students leave for summer vacation.
During a presentation to a group of students and teachers, Collins pulled up website information on the Townsend School District's solar project, the first that Bonneville funded in Montana.
Cautioning against seeing Lone Rock's green future reflected in the data from Townsend, Cluff noted that the Helena-area district had upped the ante by securing an additional $120,000 in grant money. In putting up 108 photovoltaic modules, they were trying to be as far off the grid as possible, Cluff added.
Regardless of Lone Rock's more modest aims, the students were blown away by some of information the Solar 4R Schools website had on Townsend.
One tidbit in particular drew an audible gasp - the energy supplied by that school's photovoltaic cells could produce enough electricity to power a video game player for 111 years.
"That will get their attention," Cluff said.
What got Cluff's attention was the fact that Ravalli Electric Co-op, which solely buys hydroelectric power, is already selling 100-percent renewable energy.
Stacey Bartlett, Ravalli Electric Co-op board president, said the school was a natural fit for the program because it is the only one in Ravalli County that gets all of its power from the co-op.
Bartlett, who has a child attending Lone Rock, said the school's small size and rural setting also make it a natural fit for a solar power pilot project.
Though finding the funding was a little tricky, Bartlett and Cluff said the project was too good an opportunity to let slip.
And with Bonneville looking to maximize the system without asking for additional matching funds, Cluff said it looked like an even better opportunity.
"They started small and they decided they want to make it bigger," Cluff said. "And that's fine with us."
Reporter Sepp Jannotta can be reached at 363-3300 or firstname.lastname@example.org.