This case study was originally published in the 4th edition of Brighter Future: A Study on Solar in U.S. Schools (2022).
At Mount Desert Island High School (MDIHS) in Bar Harbor, Maine, a group of passionate students is driving clean energy and climate change initiatives. In 2016, a high school senior research project found that the school roof could hold enough solar panels to power MDIHS’s electricity needs. With support from local nonprofit A Climate to Thrive, the student project became a plan supported by principal Matt Haney to make MDIHS the first school in Maine to be 100% powered by solar.
The student-led ECO (Environmental Concerns Organization) Team played a significant role in the solar project. Students helped review bids from solar installers and made recommendations on the selected proposal. Their efforts paid off in the fall of 2019 when MDIHS’s solar array went online, reducing the school’s carbon emissions by 810,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per year. ECO Team students educated their peers about the project’s benefits and held a school assembly to celebrate the new solar array. In 2020, MDIHS was one of two Maine schools recognized as a U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School.
Following the solar project, the ECO Team created Project Legacy, an initiative to expand on what they started and bring clean energy to their community and other Maine schools. Through Project Legacy, students are involved in obtaining a commitment from the school board to make the district carbon neutral by 2030, integrating climate change and renewable energy topics across the curriculum, and studying impacts of climate change on diverse communities.
The ECO Team’s clean energy advocacy is having a ripple effect in the community. Sparked by MDIHS’s solar project and student-led publicity efforts, two large community solar farms were installed on Mount Desert Island. Several students wrote a white paper explaining how MDIHS went solar to provide a road map for others to follow, and several schools around Maine have since committed to solar projects. The ECO Team is also inspiring long-term change by building trust in the community. Recently, ECO Team students secured commitments from two town councils to create climate task forces that will address issues raised by students.
Principal Haney is proud of what his students have accomplished.
“Making the transition to clean energy in our schools and communities is more likely to happen when students can advocate with decision-makers beyond the school. Our community believes in and trusts our students. There’s more power in their words than in mine.”