Speaking to a group of eighth-graders visiting his company’s solar farm, Joel Olsen gestured to the array stretching across the field and explained that the farm produces enough electricity to fully power about 500 homes.
“You’re generating that right here in Mount Airy,” said Olsen, CEO of O2 emc.
About 130 eighth-grade science students from Mount Airy Middle School made a field trip on Tuesday to the Quarry Road farm, which is owned and operated by O2 energies, an affiliate of O2 emc.
The Cornelius-based company owns and operates 15 solar farms in North Carolina and counts education among its stated mission of making a positive local impact in each community.
“We have two solar farms in Surry County. They sit here and generate power,” Olsen said, and while they do so with minimal impact in terms of noise or pollution, the farms can be put to work in other ways – such as used as a teaching tool.
“We want to build support in the community for what we do, but it’s a great asset the community can use,” he said.
Through O2 emc’s SiSTEM (Solar Integrated Science Technology, Engineering and Math) program, the company partnered with the city school system, providing a $5,000 grant for an in-depth study of solar electricity.
The grant funded the purchase of solar kits to be used in the classroom.
“The materials, curriculum and field trip to actual solar farms will help the students and their teachers gain a deeper understanding of how solar technology and the electrical grid in general works,” stated Kelly Hendley, executive assistant to Olsen.
Kelly Johnson, SiSTEM coordinator for Mount Airy City schools and kindergarten teacher, said the field trip was a good way to introduce students to something that many people do not even realize exists here in town.
“If I were not in the program I wouldn’t know,” she said. “It’s just different. It gives them exposure.”
“It really gives them a peak into the future,” said Olsen, who led the group of hard-hat-wearing students over to a long line of panels in the middle of the field and explained the basics.
When photons in sunlight hit silicon in the panel’s solar cells, electrons bounce off, creating electricity.
“Do you hear anything? Do you smell anything?” Olsen asked, pointing out how clean and unobtrusive is the operation.
The latter question was met with some snickers from students — and teachers — who while walking through had sidestepped the byproducts of the 150 sheep who are pastured on the farm .
The sheep keep the grass from growing too tall and shading the panels while providing pasture land to farmers.
The animals weren’t actually present during the field trip as owners Renee and Kevin Westmoreland took them home for lambing season.
The students all glanced at a gauge on one of the farm’s seven inverters showing an output of 492 kilowatts, which at about noon was close to its maximum output of 500 kilowatts.
They seemed to quickly absorb the out-of-doors science lesson, aptly answering Olsen’s wrap-up quiz questions.
And when he asked them if looking out over the field they thought it was ugly or cool looking they answered “cool” in unison.
“Good,” Olsen replied. “That’s what I’m hoping for.”
Zachary Starn said “I like how the solar panels look like waves in the ocean. They go up and down. It’s really cool how they do that,” and asked Olsen how the panels contoured the shape of the hill.
“Can I buy one?” asked Cayden Hill. Olsen told him about the kits waiting at school that would give the students a chance to connect their own panel to power small items such as a battery charger or LED light.
That kind of response was the goal of the field trip, said David Kidd, eighth-grade science teacher.
“It helps boost their interest a little bit more,” Kidd said. “Much more than what I can do in the classroom.”
The trip also helps answer the question presented by many science students: When are we going to use any of this?
“Here it is, right here in Mount Airy,” he said.
Olsen said educational efforts would continue locally through different grade levels in the public school system and through Surry Community College’s renewable resources program.
“We’re hoping to integrate these kids that have seen this farm with careers in the long term,” he said. “It creates interest for kids who didn’t know the renewable resource industry existed.”
Reach Terri Flagg at 415-4734.