Town known for refinery pollution tries solar

New solar panels are seen on the roof of Sam Rayburn High School  Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011, in Pasadena, Texas. The panels at Sam Rayburn and another area high schools are expected to save the school district $15,000 annually. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)
New solar panels are seen on the roof of Sam Rayburn High School Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2011, in Pasadena, Texas. The panels at Sam Rayburn and another area high schools are expected to save the school district $15,000 annually. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)Pat Sullivan / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Life in Pasadena has always revolved around energy. It was the refineries surrounding this Houston suburb that provided its economic and social foundation, as well as its nickname, "Stinkadena."

Now — as oil prices skyrocket, the nation talks about becoming less dependent on foreign oil and some scientists say pollution is causing climate change — Pasadena has laid a stake in tomorrow's energy. It's installed a $2 million solar "lab" on the rooftops and awnings of two high schools, an array that will serve the dual purpose of educating students and saving the district about $15,000 a year on its electric bill.

"We are in a community that uses conventional energy fossil fuels and we embrace their business and what they've given our economy, but we need to look at the future of our economy," said Grace Blasingame, the science content specialist at Sam Rayburn High School in the Pasadena Independent School District.

"It's all about the energy business and this is just one facet of the energy industry," she added.

Even the funding for the project has its roots in old energy, coming from a settlement between the nearby Shell refinery and an alliance of environmental groups that sued the plant over air pollution. As part of an out-of-court agreement, Shell paid $5.8 million for alleged violations, upgraded its refinery to increase efficiency and decrease pollution and put $2 million into the solar project at the high schools.

Now, sitting atop the two schools are three different solar technologies manufactured by Houston-based Ignite Solar that create energy while providing students with raw data that is being integrated throughout the curriculum. Science teachers are using it to teach about solar power. In computer class, the students are plugging the data about how much energy is generated into Excel and PowerPoint as they master those programs. And social studies teachers are using the experiment as a way to educate about the history of energy.

Off in the distance, visible from the rooftops where the glistening panels and silvery tubes absorb the sun's rays and convert them into electricity, are the refinery stacks — still a source of energy, but one that is rapidly being complemented by newer, nonconventional technologies.

Shirleyne Murr-Thompson, an 18-year-old senior at Sam Rayburn High School, has lived in Pasadena her entire life. Her uncles and cousins all work in the refineries, and like most others in the Gulf Coast town she is proud of the community's contribution to the nation's energy supply and thankful the plants are there.

"Without them much of my family would be unemployed," she said.

At the same time, Shirleyne is proud to be part of the project that has produced one of the largest solar arrays in the greater Houston area.

"It's a good thing to get the new energy into our school ... and teach that it's not a big, scary thing," she said. "You don't have to have just oil."

In the seven days the project has been up and running, the panels have generated enough electricity to power the average home for two months. Blasingame said it is estimated the solar project will fulfill 15 percent of the school's electricity needs.

To make the project a true learning experience, Ignite Solar installed the panels at slightly different angles and with minor variations at each school so that the students would be able to compare and contrast the data, concluding what is most efficient and possibly even coming up with real-life solutions for other businesses and places, said Peter Mathey, the president and CEO of Ignite Solar.

Already, the project is being expanded and the schools will soon get two more technologies, including a tracking device that will allow the panels to follow the sun from east to west as it rises and sets — perhaps saving the schools more money.

"It's good to see solar installed in the middle of all the other industrial facilities that are around," Mathey said.

Kirk Lewis, superintendent of the school district, believes this project creates exactly what America needs to compete successfully in the 21st century: creativity and innovation. Nurturing those characteristics in Pasadena's students is especially challenging, he said, because in most of the district's schools some 75 percent to 95 percent of the students are low-income.

"To be at the forefront in studying and creating those technologies at the public school level is exciting," Lewis said. "To be able to offer them this kind of opportunity is immeasurable."