The island community of Cape Breton in eastern Canada has deep roots in coal and steel production, so when those industries left the area 20 years ago, the very fabric of the community was ripped to shreds. Many wondered if the community would survive, but a persistent core of residents stuck around, intent on redefining the economy and community of Cape Breton Island in the post-industrial era.
The result of this rather recent transition is a city filled with hope. Living through a transition of this magnitude required hope for something better. A belief that the community was not defined by the industries that had defined it and a commitment to the future.
The future has always belonged to the young, and when Munro Academy was founded in 2009, the turbulent times following the exodus of the coal and steel industries from the area had a large impact on its educational focus. The academy embodies the hope and mindset of the city and has focused on equipping its students with the ability to solve the truly wicked problems — the real problems facing the world.
Munro Academy teacher Douglas Beane said it like this: “a core focus for us as a school is to really encourage students to take a great education and use it to meet the world’s needs and respond to those in really great ways…really creative ways.”
One of the challenges posed to students was focused on climate change. What can be done at the school to reduce its carbon footprint, and more than that, to impact Cape Breton Island in a positive way? The students were filled with ideas and opened up the floodgates to their teachers. Out of the long list and through a process of discussion, several ideas rose to the top and were selected as the focus of action for the project.
Rooftop Photovoltaic Solar
First and foremost, students felt that an installation of photovoltaic solar panels on the roof of the school would be a great way to cut out the emissions associated with the school’s electricity consumption.
Photovoltaic solar panels are used around the world to convert the sun’s energy into usable DC electricity. This power can be run directly into a battery or more commonly, through an inverter straight into the local AC electrical grid.
The school was fortunate to have a massive expanse of roof that made the perfect location for solar panels to be installed. Installing panels on an elevated roof that is not shaded by trees allows for the maximum exposure to the sun and thus, the maximum amount of energy production from the panels.
A Better Use for Biomass
Being located in Canada, heating is a large component of the energy consumption at Munro Academy. To mitigate the carbon impact of traditional furnaces that burn fossil fuels, Munro Academy installed a biomass heating system that burns locally abundant wood that has been shaped into more efficient pellets.
A new silo was purchased to store the biomass pellets, which are then metered into the furnace as needed. Biomass heating is considered carbon neutral because it does not add carbon to the surface carbon system. The trees used to make the pellets sequestered atmospheric carbon over their lifetimes, which is then released when they are burned.
Fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal, in contrast, are brought up from below the surface of the earth. When they are burned for energy or otherwise, the carbon they contain is then released into the atmosphere, adding new carbon to the surface carbon cycle. Elon Musk discussed the difference between surface and subsurface carbon at the Sorbonne in Paris a few years back in a very easy to digest talk.
Solar Thermal Air Heaters
The third idea that was implemented to address climate change with on-site solutions was a new innovation that came from students. The initial concept was to make a continuous tube out of pop cans that could be used to heat the air from inside the school building with the sun, then pipe it back into the building.
Because this was a new, outside the box idea, it was the project that took the most work and thus, created the most opportunities for the students to learn. The first prototype of the project was less successful than the students had hoped, and so they went back to the drawing board.
The system is now in its third iteration today and is now generating useful heat to warm the indoor air at the school. Pop cans have been replaced with flexible aluminum tubing painted a matte black to absorb as much heat from the sun as possible. The ducts pull cold air from the bottom of the classrooms and pipe the warmed air back in at the top.
These home-grown systems have been so successful that the school has installed 10 of them to create valuable heat for the interior of the school, directly offsetting the need to burn biomass pellets to warm the school. A student at Munro Academy, Jordan Francis, shared that, “It’s great to have solar heaters because it is Canada. It’s cold. Warm for two months then it’s cold.” Extracting as much heat from as many sources as possible is critical not just to staying comfortable, but to staying alive through the long, cold Canadian winters.
The Zayed Future Energy Prize
The dreams of sustainable living on Cape Breton Island were given assistance when Munro Academy won the 2015 Zayed Future Energy Prize for schools in the Americas. The award was granted based on the broad vision presented by the school not only to take direct action against climate change, but to use the renewable energy and carbon-neutral solutions to educate students and the surrounding community.
Winning the Zayed Future Energy Prize came with $100,000 USD in prize money, which afforded the school the ability to build its dreams by giving students the resources needed to work through an active exercise in innovation with the solar air heaters.
The award funds allowed a school in eastern Canada to install solar panels that produce all the power it needs. That might sound counterintuitive to install systems that tap into the power of the sun in Canada, where it’s cold for the majority of the year and compared to many locations around the world, it doesn’t get much sun. Just the same, the school now runs on sunshine, tapping into heat and electrical energy from the sun to warm and power its operations.
Douglas Beane, a teacher at the school, aspires to continue to inspire students, the community, and the world with the work done at the school:
“We hope that people will see that a small group of students from a very remote location in Cape Breton, Canada can get really excited about making a difference for climate change. For making a difference for them, their children and their grandchildren and help people around the world through that. We hope that people will take that up and be inspired to make a difference as well.”
*This article was written for Masdar as part of a Zayed Sustainability Prize effort to highlight the impact made by past winners of the prize. All travel was paid for by Masdar.
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