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Not every school has a $2.7 million solar teaching aid

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Turn left at the door of his office and look out the window straight ahead and you will see the $2.7 million teaching aid that has undoubtedly made Michael Zapantis the envy of every science department chairman in the country.

There on the hillside next to Beverly High School is an array of thousands of photovoltaic cells, the most advanced technology in solar energy.

Although the cells will provide about $10,000 worth of electricity for the school this year, their purpose is not just to keep the lights burning. Their purpose is to educate the Department of Energy, which is funding the project for three years, and the public, beginning with the students at Beverly High School.

The project will give the Department of Energy the opportunity to see how photovoltaic cells work in the Northeast and it will give Beverly's students, and anyone who comes to the visitors' center, an unusual opportunity to learn how a slice of silicon turns sunlight into electricity.

Unlike the more familiar solar systems which harness solar energy by heating water, photovoltaic cells convert sunlight directly into electricity.

The cell, which is about four inches in diameter, is a thin water of silicon. One side is chemically treated to have too many electrons and the other side is treated to have too few. When sunlight hits the cell, it creates a flow of electrons from one side to the other and it is this flow that is collected as electricity.

That electricity is converted from DC to AC and fed right into the second. On weekends when the school is vacant it is sold to the local power company.

Data on the performance of the equipment in all kinds of weather is sent to Seattle where information on a similar project at a shopping center in New Mexico is being collected.

Researchers will be experimenting with different ways of washing the panels and with placing the panels which hold the cells at different angles to the sun.

One goal of the project is to make the public more aware of photovoltaic solar energy, according to Richard Peterson, the business manager of the Beverly schools. Photovoltaic cells could become a more common source of energy if the cost of producing the cells can be reduced, he said.

The first step in achieving this goal is to involve the high school's own students as much as possible in what is going on outside their classrooms, he said.

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