Children's museum plans to use solar panels as teaching tools

With its giant inflatable mascots -- a duck and a dragon -- perched atop its roof, the Children's Discovery Museum can easily be spotted from afar by visitors to downtown San Jose, Calif.

Now, that rooftop's become even more distinctive as the popular family attraction joined the green museum bandwagon after installing 90 solar panels that will cover half of the energy costs for the museum's recently completed "Builder Building," reports the East Bay Times.

The Discovery Museum sees its move toward solar as part of its educational mission.

"The museum is a great place to really role model [green] activity," said Marilee Jennings, executive director of the Discovery Museum.

The Discovery Museum's installation is just the latest in a green trend. In 2008, The Tech Museum acquired the first commercial solar power system in downtown San Jose, the newspaper said. And the Exploratorium in San Francisco used solar panels to support a net-zero energy use goal for its new home, begun in 2010.

Other museums have sought green makeovers partly as a matter of necessity. As of 2012 all new commercial construction in San Francisco must meet LEED gold standards – one of the highest distinctions for green buildings under a common national rating system.

Jennings said the museum has wanted to go solar for years, but none of its roof structures could support solar panels' weight – until two years ago, when the museum moved forward with a new 3,200-square-foot "Builder Building," in which the museum designs and assembles all of its interactive exhibits.

Hoping to incorporate solar, the museum reached out to a company long headquartered in San Jose, SunPower, which donated the panels. SunPower has supplied solar panels for The Tech and The Exploratorium, although not through donation.

Compared with, for example, The Exploratorium's net-zero energy system – which creates as much energy from renewable power sources as it consumes – the Discovery's Museum's installation is modest. The solar panels will save between $6,000 and $7,000 a year and generate about 40,000 kilowatt hours annually. But Randy Zechman, co-founder and CEO of Clean Solar, believes the solar panels will have an important educational impact as well.

"To me, this is the most important roof in Silicon Valley," said Zechman, who has been taking his children to the Discovery Museum for eight years. "There's no roof that's more visible and that brings people's eyes to it."

While the second-story solar panels themselves will be mostly out of sight, an exhibit in the museum's outdoor expansion currently under construction will feature solar panels that kids can tinker with. When it debuts, the $2 million outdoor area will incorporate other environmentally-minded pieces, such as cisterns that will catch rain off the Builder Building's roof. Jennings hopes to include solar panels on future construction, too.


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