[Note: This story first appeared in the September 2012 Energy Services Bulletin.]
Educational displays are among the most requested items in the Equipment Loan Program. Utilities set them up at customer meetings, classrooms and community events to open up conversations with their ratepayers, explained Equipment Loan Manager Gary Hoffmann. “For example, the lighting display shows consumers how much energy they can save simply by replacing a conventional light with a compact fluorescent light,” he said.
The fuel cell demonstration is good for illustrating complex ideas about energy production and storage,” continued Hoffmann. “Utilities are more likely to borrow that display to take to a school.”
Tools to help community
That’s what Wheatland REA Member Services Manager Al Teel had in mind when he asked to borrow the program’s weather station and soil monitoring equipment last spring. “It’s a good way to help out the science teachers in our territory,” Teel observed.
Wheatland REA is a frequent borrower, and Teel said he is always on the lookout for equipment that can help members. “I’ll call Gary and ask him what’s new, what haven’t I tried yet. He was very enthusiastic about the weather stations,” recalled Teel.
There is a lot to get excited about. Some educational displays collect only one type of data, like anemometers with wind speed. The weather station measures wind speed, solar index, ultraviolet levels, precipitation and soil temperature and moisture content. “Instead of just evaluating renewables potential, the weather station gives a complete profile of the area’s weather,” said Hoffmann.
For residents in a largely agricultural economy, that information is relevant to their daily lives, Teel observed. “It’s more than a science project—students will be collecting data that has real value to the three communities,” he said.
Loads of useful data
The Wheatland High weather station went into the school’s science “ecology area,” an unused area students turned into an outdoor lab with fish ponds and gardens. From there, the equipment wirelessly transmitted data throughout the summer to the science classrooms at the south end of the building. Students will download the information when they return in the fall. “A tornado went through the area the day after we installed the weather station,” said Teel. “It will be interesting to see what it recorded.”
The schools have big plans for the data their students will be collecting. One teacher wants to start a workbook that will become a weather history for future classes to use as a reference. The solar and wind data might one day help the schools apply for grants for renewable energy systems, Teel suggested.
The students will also be working on interfacing the weather stations with the district administrative building’s public website. Eventually, anyone in the area who might need weather history—the highway department, farmers, teachers and students at other schools—will be able to access real-time data on local weather.
The value of the weather stations as a teaching tool has caught on with teachers at other schools in the Platte County School District. “Glendo School is the latest to set up a weather station,” said Teel. “The town is about the same distance north from Wheatland as Chugwater is south, so now we have weather data for a contiguous portion of our territory.”
Co-op, Western benefit too
There are lots of community-minded reasons for power providers to borrow educational displays from Western, but there are benefits for the utilities as well.
Wheatland REA will be able to use the real-time data to schedule maintenance crews during weather events. Teel admitted that students, teachers and administrators involved in the weather station project are more likely to be open to less “exciting,” but far more vital electric safety demonstrations.
In the long term, teaching future consumers about how weather affects agriculture and energy use prepares them to make sound decisions about both. “It’s always good for a co-op to work with well-informed members,” he added.
Just as utilities borrow Western’s equipment to build relationships with their communities, we use the loan program to bond with our customers. Hoffmann, who traveled up to Wyoming to assist with installing the weather stations, said, “Meeting with our customers and their members gives us the chance to learn more about their needs and their experiences with the equipment they borrow. That feedback helps us build our tool library and identify training needs.”
He added praise for the students, teachers and Wheatland REA employees who did so much preparation for the project. “The bottom line is Western is just a small part of a really awesome team.”