AMES, Iowa – A Louisa County 4-H club received two Best Development Awards from 1,000 Friends of Iowa Tuesday, Jan. 23, at the State Capitol in Des Moines.
The Wapello School District RoboLoco FIRST LEGO League 4-H Club initiated a solar energy project that is expected to save the school district nearly $1.5 million and create a sustainable future for years to come. Following the 4-H club members’ recommendations, the school district installed solar panels on three district buildings and a covered bus drop-off canopy at the elementary school.
“It's a project [the youth] came up with, and to see it come to reality and to make such an impact in their community is exciting,” said Terry Dvorak, CEO of Red Lion Renewables. “This project is an example for others to follow, [and they’re now] communicating that to other school districts. So other kids in other school districts can make that impact both from an economic and environmental standpoint.”
Each year, 1,000 Friends of Iowa receives nominations for smart growth development, which are then judged against strict criteria in their respective category by a panel of jurors. The awards showcase projects that help advance sustainability across Iowa.
The Wapello Community School District 4-H club’s solar panel project was named a recipient in the Renewable Energy category. Award-winning projects feature the use of renewable energy on a small or large scale, have succeeded in decreasing the use of fossil fuels and reducing carbon emissions, and serve as viable models for others looking to adopt renewable energy solutions.
The youth’s exemplary work and involvement impressed the jurors so immensely that they also received a Young Leaders special award. In addition to receiving these honors at the awards ceremony, the youth met Gov. Kim Reynolds in her office and talked with her about their project. They also had the opportunity to tour the Iowa House Chamber with Rep. Taylor Collins from Louisa County.
The award-winning project started in 2022, as the club competed in FIRST LEGO League, taking on a local energy challenge: Could installing solar panels help their school use less coal-generated electricity and save money?
So many fourth through eighth-grade youth wanted to take on the challenge that the 4-H club fielded two FLL teams. One team used the guidance and mentorship of Dvorak to calculate a solar panel installation estimate and proposal.
“I guided them, so I got to be their mentor, teaching them some math, science, and engineering. We thought about what solar can do and what it can't do. How do you measure it? And what do you have to keep in mind?” explained Dvorak.
Meanwhile, the other youth team partnered with Mike Mohrfeld of Mohrfeld Electric to conduct an energy audit of the school to determine if their energy consumption was efficient and identified ways to conserve electricity.
“Although we had two teams working separately, their work individually went to a greater effort,” explained Abby Boysen, 4-H youth program specialist with Iowa State University Extension and Outreach. Through all the conversions and measurement calculations, the teams determined they had more than enough space to make the school almost entirely solar-powered, and it would be more energy efficient than their current system.
The teams presented their project ideas to the Wapello Community School District school board. The final numbers in their estimate were calculated to two decimal points: $1.46 million in projected lifetime savings. Afterward, there was a silent pause of disbelief.
“It was unbelievable that fourth through eighth graders could calculate this type of math–come up with this type of estimation. They knew the runtime of the hours of every light bulb in that building. They could tell you how much the heaters were costing in the classrooms. They reviewed the prior year’s energy bill and knew the kilowatt-hour usage exactly and how many solar panels were needed. They were all over it,” Boysen recalled.
Financed with a power purchase agreement with Red Lion Renewables, the district expects to save $16,000 annually and reduce carbon emissions by 656 tons per year over the 30-year lifetime of the arrays.
In August 2023, the teams held a groundbreaking ceremony to kick off the solar installation. As of December 2023, three buildings and a covered bus drop-off canopy have solar panels installed.
“It was crazy to see how much of an impact it had on our school,” explained Tyler Ehrman, 4-H club president and high school tech mentor. “It’s moved really fast compared to how we thought it would. It was cool to see how this project quickly ballooned into something very real and not just an idea.”
The initiative sparked excitement within the school district, encouraging peers and teachers to be more aware of saving energy tactics. The additions also created a buzz in their community, allowing the youth to provide education on their project beyond school walls.
“The youths’ energy and excitement is infectious … they're young but mighty and quite unstoppable. They want to move beyond the county line, share their information, and empower and encourage others to do the same,” Boysen said.
“Without really necessarily telling a different school, they already set up solar panels because they heard about us, and now we're just trying to expand on that,” said club member Grant Parsons.
"It truly is such a full circle moment," Boysen recalled. "By starting small with only the elementary school, the butterfly effect is making an impact and spreading to the high school, then to other school districts and 4-H clubs. It's opened up the doors of opportunity that the youth can be change agents in their community and beyond."
4-H youth programs provide opportunities for young people to develop skills they can use throughout their life. Iowa 4-H provides educational opportunities in agriculture and natural resources, leadership and civic engagement, communication and the arts, healthy living, and STEM. To learn more about Iowa 4-H and robotics opportunities, visit www.extension.iastate.edu/4h.
Founded in 1998, 1,000 Friends of Iowa is the only organization in the state focused solely on promoting responsible land use in community, state and federal development decisions. The organization encourages land use planning that protects farmland and natural areas and ensures livable communities through implementation of smart growth principles.
- Members of the RoboLoco 4-H Club with Gov. Kim Reynolds and Rep. Taylor Collins from Louisa County after discussing their project.
- Members of the RoboLoco 4-H Club receive the 2024 Best Development Award for Renewable Energy Jan. 23 at the Capitol Rotunda.
- Members of the RoboLoco 4-H club configure their robots during a team practice.