Ben Graves, the Solar-Powered Teacher

In Delta, Colorado, teacher Ben Graves is showing young people how to make and maintain solar panels—setting them up for a career in renewable energies.

16.12.2019 | by Christy Romer
Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash
Photo by Science in HD on Unsplash

Sometimes the places that seem least likely to embrace change are those that end up leading the way.

So it goes with Delta, a small area of Colorado, USA. It’s a mining area, with employment historically based on extracting fossil fuels. Seventy percent of its residents voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential election—a man who has been no friend to environmentalism.

Yet it’s here that the spine of a renewable energy revolution seems set in motion: Young people, as set out on the site High Country News (HCN), are being trained in force for roles maintaining and repairing solar panels.

It’s in large part thanks to the initiative of teacher Ben Graves at Delta High School, who has been leading a hugely popular solar panel science class over the past four years.

The course is hands-on, physical stuff. It’s readily taken by kids who weren’t that interested in ‘normal’ science lessons—some of whom whose parents were miners—and provides a useful science credit as they train for electrical careers. They also learn about minimising emissions and have helped the school drastically reduce its energy usage.

Over the past five years, two of Delta County’s three mines have closed. The industry is no longer fit, economically or ecologically, to serve as the place for graduating seniors to step immediately into good-paying jobs.

“I think we have to be doing some sort of trades education,” he said, stressing his role is to prepare students for life after school. “For a kid with a high school diploma, working service is really all you can do without more training.”


Preparing for the next generation

The class is supported by local non-profit Solar Energy International, which is working to integrate solar training into the science curriculum and across a region in which it’s increasingly common to see solar panels installed on houses or commercial buildings.

The class has helped install new solar arrays behind Delta High School, which actually powers 10 percent of Delta High School’s energy demand. The school is unfortunately not able to install more, but the current amount makes a difference.

“The facilities folks at first waved it away as a class project,” Graves said with a laugh. “Now, maintenance sees it as a real way to reduce demand charges. It went from us pushing some of this stuff on the administration to them saying, ‘Wait a second, we actually want this.’”

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