Students at a dozen Tampa Bay area schools and about 100 others across the state will spend this fall harnessing the power of the sun.
The schools will generate solar electricity, about 10 kilowatts of it, or enough to power the average Florida home.
The energy will be used for areas of the schools that serve as emergency shelters. The schools also plan to use the systems as teaching tools for students and to add some electricity — albeit small — to the overall grid.
The Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida developed the program, awarding about 80 schools with the systems through government and utility company money.
Progress Energy announced Wednesday that it was adding 10 primary and secondary schools and one postsecondary school to the list each year beginning this fall through 2014.
"It's a start," said James Fenton, director of the solar energy center. "It shows it can be done … and we're getting the schoolchildren involved."
Educating and focusing students on solar power may help Florida regain its footing toward being a leader in renewable energy. Former Gov. Charlie Crist sought to catapult the state into the forefront of renewable energy, but the economic downturn and interest in nuclear power derailed his plans.
But in the months after the meltdown of Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant, there has been growing interest in renewable energy and solar in particular.
Fenton's initial program, dubbed the SunSmart Schools E-Shelter program, received a $10 million stimulus grant to outfit schools with the solar arrays.
Progress Energy adopted the program and made it part of its energy efficiency and conservation program, which customers fund by paying $2.99 per 1,000 kilowatt hours of monthly usage.
Progress Energy has installed solar panels at schools in the past, but the utility says the new program provides a systematic way of expanding solar to a larger number of schools.
"We're always looking for ways of taking advantage of solar technology," said Tim Leljedal, a spokesman for Progress Energy. "Solar will certainly play a role in the long-term approach to meeting our customers energy needs."
In addition to the solar arrays, Progress Energy will provide the schools it equips with batteries to store energy.
Knights Elementary School in Plant City is scheduled to receive its solar array today through Fenton's initial program.
Principal Janine Hall said she plans to incorporate use of the technology in all grades.
"It's a bonus to have it on site because it basically is a living classroom for the students," Hall said. "The idea is to incorporate renewable energy and mathematics and science into the living classroom."
Schools will be outfitted with 1,000-square-foot photovoltaic solar arrays. Websites tied to the programs will allow students to analyze data.
The systems cost about $100,000 each to install. That covers the solar panels, installation, connections to the school and the power grid and equipment to analyze data. The panels will save the school some money but the small arrays are more designed for educational purposes.
Fenton said he believes the savings the schools realize from using solar eventually could help fund other programs at the schools. He said the average Florida high school spends about a half million dollars on electricity each year, so reducing that cost would help as the economy continues to sputter along.
Fenton's dream is to equip all emergency shelters in the state with the technology.
With Progress Energy becoming the first utility to adopt the program, Fenton said he believes other utilities in Florida will join the initiative.
"We're very pleased that they're doing that," Fenton said. "Progress Energy is kind of a leader."
Ivan Penn can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 892-2332. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/Consumers_Edge and find the Consumer's Edge on Facebook.