Students Design Solar Artwork, Power Disadvantaged Neighborhood With Clean Energy

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Because Western Pennsylvania has a very high mix of coal-fired power, which contributes to consistently poor air quality in the Pittsburgh region, a team of 20 local kids aged between 8 and 17, as part of a six-week Art+Energy summer camp, successfully designed and installed “Renaissance Gate” – a public artwork using solar panels, aesthetically angled to both take in sunlight and surround the steel frame of an arched gate – to generate renewable energy and light up the disadvantaged neighborhood.

The 17 red, yellow, and orange solar panels sit on an un-shaded corner across from the 12,000-square-foot community center owned by the Homewood Renaissance Association, a group that provides resources to the neighborhood. The panels will produce about 6,500 kilowatt-hours of electricity for the building, and electrical outlets in the poles holding the panels will provide onsite 24×7 charging for phones and other portable devices. The community center also receives a credit on its electricity bill by selling the energy that it doesn’t use to the local utility.

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The project is the first finished installation for the Land Art Generator Initiative, Pittsburgh-based nonprofit founded by married couple Robert Ferry and Elizabeth Monoian to develop large-scale public artworks that double as utility-scale renewable energy generation.

The kids arrived at the idea of a “Renaissance Gate”—a passageway through which visitors can walk from the old Homewood into a Homewood of the future—a place of prosperity and opportunity for those who live here. The solar artwork now provides clean electricity to help offset the demand load of the Homewood Renaissance Association facilities and provides a unique cultural amenity for the community, with a personal phone charging station that can be utilized by anyone in the neighborhood.

The camp was organized by a collaboration of the Land Art Generator Initiative, green buildings nonprofit Conservation Consultants Inc. and the Homewood Renaissance Association. The groups secured funding from the Heinz Endowments, Google Grants and the Three Rivers Community Initiative to oversee camp activities and pay for the materials and installation costs.

Monoian said, “Before designing “Renaissance Gate”, the students analyzed the existing sign structure and created prototypes out of Popsicle sticks, clay and construction paper to shape the solar panels — all while discussing how to express their experience in the neighborhood.”

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The students visited FirstEnergy Corp.’s Bruce Mansfield coal-fired power plant and Beaver Valley nuclear power plant, both located along the Ohio River in Shipping port, to learn about the traditional ways of producing electricity. To see the recent strides in sustainable architecture and clean energy sources, they went to Chatham University’s Eden Hall campus in Richland, the Energy Innovation Center in the Lower Hill District, and Conservation Consultants on the South Side.

Terrell Williams, 11, one of students, said turning a blighted sign into a piece of art symbolized the ability of the community for positive development. “People sometimes think nothing good can happen in Homewood since it’s such a violent place. But since we’ve built these solar panels, people can start to see how much better it is as a community.”

14-year-old DaVontae Garner felt the project represented a gateway to a new Homewood. It means hope. I’m hoping that it will change the way people have been acting, change the community, make it a bit nicer.”


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