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Gift That Stopped Giving: Solar-Energy System Is Defunct

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Reston, Va--Outsiders are still coming here to see one of the nation's first solar-powered elementary schools, built in the energy-conscious era following the 1973 Arab oil embargo.

But the school has long since abandoned the "Cadillac" heating and cooling system because of costly maintenance problems.

The Terraset Elementary School, built with a $640,000 grant from the Saudi Arabian government, was hailed as state-of-the-art when it opened in 1977. About 15,000 visitors toured the building its first year.

Its name was derived from the Latin word for "earth," since the school is set in the ground for further energy efficiency.

But the solar-power system was shut down more than two years ago because of constant water leakage from the more than 4,000 joints between the tubes that make up the solar panels, Fairfax County school officials said. Terraset's 800 students now are kept warm in winter and cool in hot weather with conventional electric systems.

"In the winter, there were gigantic stalactites of ice dripping onto the courtyard below the solar collectors, and a skating rink would form by the main entrance," said John W. Prohaska, the school's principal.

In addition to repair bills of about $5,000 a year, district officials were concerned about the danger to students and the district's liability if a student was injured on the ice, said Anthony A. Martin, energy-management coordinator for Fairfax schools.

'A Cadillac' System

The leakage problems dogged the system from the beginning, according to Mr. Martin. Engineers from Owens Illinois of Toledo, Ohio, the company that built the solar collectors, would work on the system "for weeks on end," he said.

He also insisted that it worked well despite the water leakage. "It was a Cadillac of the solar collectors," he said. "Apart from the leaks, it was a technical success."

Completely renovating the solar system would be too expensive, possibly costing between $100,000 and $300,000, Mr. Martin said.

"Maybe King Faud [of Saudi Arabia] would like to help us out again,'' Mr. Prohaska quipped.

Learned Useful Lessons

Even though the experiment did not work out, Fairfax officials said, the lessons they learned at Terraset helped them in designing other school buildings.

Fairfax has become a pioneer in the use of computers for controlling heating and air-conditioning in school buildings, Mr. Martin said. About 77 new schools in the district are equipped with the computerized system, which allows maintenance crews at a central location to monitor each school.

The district also built a second solar system at Terra Centre Elementary for about $350,000, half the cost of Terraset's. The newer school's solar collectors are enclosed and away from the school's open courtyard.

The system saves about $15,000 a year in cooling and heating costs, Mr. Martin said. "We did Terra Centre to prove it could pay off," he said. "If we have the 1973 oil embargo again, we'll be ready."

Terraset's principal, meanwhile, is still asked to conduct tours of its system. "Sometimes an engineer, or parents, or people visiting the area will come by," Mr. Prohaska said. He tells visitors that the solar system is not functioning.

And the school continues to receive national attention. Last week, General Motors officials kicked off a national campaign to promote energy awareness by bringing to the school a solar-powered car that traversed Australia.

"I'm still convinced that we need to continue the movement toward alternative energy sources," Mr. Prohaska said, "especially solar energy."

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