Westwoods Elementary Chooses SolaRISE to Help Raise Funds for Solar Array

February 16, 2020 |

Above: On the hunt for cans and bottles to help fund a solar array at Westwoods Elementary.

People around Traverse City first saw the can/bottle collection stations pop up last fall. They were just boxes with simple signs and colorful kids’ handprints that said to put your returnable bottles and cans in here and the deposit money will help buy a 10-kilowatt solar array for Westwoods Elementary School. 

The fundraiser idea was a good one, for a couple of reasons. One, it raised enough money—$1,061— for the kids and parents of Westwoods to feel early hope for their solar array. And two, the returnables drive put the word out all over town that the parents and staff at this little elementary school were thinking big about the future of their children. 

boys with solar panels
Students of Westwoods Elementary School inspecting a solar array, and hoping for one like it at their school.

“Also, we wanted to do the can drive because we wanted the solar panels to feel attainable to everyone,” says Nicola Philpott, who is the driving force behind the solar array project. Philpott is president of the Westwoods Parent Teacher Organization and a devoted renewable energy advocate. “We’d take cans, we’d take $5; everyone could participate towards getting funds for the panels. It’s not just for big donors.”

Philpott first started contemplating a solar array for her kids’ school when she saw other schools installing  them. First was Traverse Heights Elementary, then Central High School—both in her school district—and then the nearby Glen Lake Community Schools. “If others could do this at their schools, we should be able to do it at ours,” Nicola says, summing up her plain but motivating line of reasoning.

Science teacher Graydon Steele most likely expressed the thoughts of many when he explained why he was all in on the solar array. “This generation of students is facing global challenges like no other before,” he said. “As a science teacher, I always tell my students how science is all around us. In fifth grade science, we learn that the sun is what creates almost all of the energy that we experience and use daily! This energy ranges from photosynthesis in plants to solar energy that we can use from solar panels. It is tremendous to see this science discussion come to life right in front of Westwoods!”

Securing approval for the project was relatively straightforward, perhaps in part because the Traverse City Area Public Schools (TCAPS) already has two schools with solar arrays. “First I spoke with principal Dan Tiesworth.” Philpott says, and he immediately saw the educational benefits.

“The solar panels provide students a tangible application of how energy moves through our environment,” Tiesworth says.  “This is an important connection for students to make, they realize electricity isn’t magic, and it’s production has an environmental impact.  Understanding this impact can promote conservation and awareness.”  

And of course, the kids loved the idea of a solar array. Watch the video at SolaRISE.us to hear their unscripted, straight-from-the-heart testimony! But in the meantime here are one student’s thoughts: “I think we should use solar energy because solar energy is clean, and it can help fight climate change. And it will help make the electric bill cheaper.”

When the principal gave the array a green light, Philpott then met with people from the school district’s team that oversees building infrastructure. TCAPS brought in solar engineers to discuss details like array size and placement, and asked them to provide a project quote, which came to $24,000 to cover 32 individual solar panels mounted into one large frame to form the ground-mounted array.

Meanwhile, fundraising has moved on from the can/bottle drive. The school held a silent auction and, proving depth of community support, 41 businesses contributed items. In addition, four businesses (Cherry Republic, Heritage Sustainable Energy, Otwell Mawby and Light of Day Organics) have contributed, as have two foundations. The Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation gave $1,000 and Traverse City Rotary Charities gave $500. All added up, the school has raised over $12,000. 

But with the project cost at $24,000, more is needed to close the final gap. Westwoods turned to Groundwork’s SolaRISE crowdfunding platform designed specifically for this purpose—to help schools and nonprofits pay for renewable energy projects with online giving. Donations are being accepted now!

Donate to Westwoods Elementary’s solar array drive at SolaRISE.us!

Tips for Schools That Want a Solar Array

Above: A Westwoods student decorates a can/bottle collection box to launch the solar fundraiser last fall.

Nicola Philpott, who is leading the charge for a solar array at her children’s school, Westwood Elementary, near Traverse City, has this advice to offer:

1. After you get approval from the people in charge at your school, talk to the utility that serves your school. They might offer a donation and technical advice.

2. Apply for grants as early as you can.

3. Speak to people at other schools who have solar arrays. Get their advice.

4. Be innovative and fun with your fundraising. In addition to the can/bottle drive, Westwoods had a movie night at a local theater and proceeds went to the solar array. ​

Check out Westwoods Elementary’s SolaRISE crowdfunding page and give this young team a boost!

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