First Solar Powered Charter School in the U.S.
Living off the grid- The STAR School
The STAR (Service To All Relations) School is the first totally off-grid public charter school in the U.S. It is located 22 miles northeast of Flagstaff, Arizona, at an elevation of over 5,600 feet, and adjacent to the Navajo Nation, the largest American Indian reservation in the country. The elevation of the school means that it does snow and gets quite cold in the winter. The school was founded in 2001 by Mark and Kate Sorensen who had more than ten years’ experience of living off-grid on their solar powered ranch in the area. Their experience of living off grid and working in tribal schools convinced the Sorensens that a school like this was needed and possible. In fact, there was no option to being off the grid. If the school were to serve the population of Navajo students that it was intended to serve, it had to be located on land that did not have any utilities within several miles and it was unlikely that power or water lines would be brought to the property for decades. The school currently serves a population of 130 students from pre-K through 8th grade.
All electrical power for the school is currently provided by an integrated system of 245 solar PV panels (which generate a maximum of about 54 kilowatt hours) two wind generators (which generate a maximum of about 7.5 kilowatt hours), and a backup 20 k propane generator (which is used to supplement the system on the rare occasions of successive cloudy days). All power generated by the sun and wind is either used directly in the school during daylight hours or stored in two large banks of batteries at the school, to be inverted to standard AC current when needed. There are no power lines, phone lines, or water lines coming to the school from outside sources, yet the school has power, phones and internet connections 24 hours a day ,7 days a week. The wind and sun provide all the electricity to operate all the lights, heaters, evaporative coolers, computers, printers, copiers and electronic equipment as well as a complete cafeteria with refrigeration for food and pumps for the water distribution system.
All of the classroom buildings on the campus are built into a south-facing hillside with maximum window exposure on the south sides and minimum window exposure on the north sides to take advantage of passive solar heating in the winter.. All active heating, when necessary, is done with propane. All electrical lighting on campus is done with high efficiency fluorescent or LED bulbs supplemented by natural lighting. All teachers are encouraged to use natural lighting to the maximum extent possible. The art and science building walls are built out of strawbales, creating an R-value of 60, and the building incorporates trombe walls to supplement heating as well as a large greenhouse planting area that acts as a heat sink
The school has 20,000 gallons of water storage tanks on campus and has certified water hauled in to the storage tanks until the well on the campus is certified for public use by the State.. All bathrooms have waterless urinals and low flush toilets. All buildings on the campus have roofs designed to flow rainwater and snowmelt to the trees and native plants and gardens on the campus. Drainage from the parking lot and driveway is also funneled to trees and native plants. Planting areas on the campus are designed by students and staff close to the buildings using permaculture techniques.
The wholistic idea of Service To All Relations
The STAR School is place-based in its philosophy of teaching and orientation. This means that the land, the natural environment, the people ,and the culture of the area in which student’s families live and the school is exists provide much of the context and content of projects that students work on in the school. The facts that the school is located adjacent to the largest American Indian reservation in the country, and is in a very arid area that is blessed with ample sunlight and wind actively influences how we do things at the school as well as what students chose to research and report on. The school’s reliance of solar photovoltaics and wind generators for power, for example, becomes a focus of student learning about impacts of various power systems on the planet . One of the fundamental values taught and practiced among Navajo people for many generations is the importance of relationships. Therefore, staff at the school emphasize the building of meaningful and respectful relationships with the children, the land, and all of the surrounding nature. Students are taught we are related to all living things and that the elders and all these animal and plant communities deserve our respect and many times need our help . The whole school community focuses on practicing four foundational values of Navajo culture, defined as “The 4 R’s: Respect, Relationship, Responsibility, and Reasoning” toward themselves and everyone around them
In fact, the name of the school, STAR, is an acronym for Service To All Relations. In addition to learning about renewable energy , our students are actively involved in service projects focused on helping elders in the community as well as our plant and animal communities. Thus students take care of the plants we have planted as well as native plants that were here before us. Students travel to nearby Navajo farms to help harvest corn and make traditional Navajo foods. Students gather traditional berries on native bushes growing on campus and prepare those foods in the cafeteria. For more information, see the school’s website, www.starschool.org , or contact the co-founders of the STAR School, Mark and Kate Sorensen at 928-415-4157.