Students protest to the location of the Sun, but not its desire to

The biggest mass protest against a solar power installation in the United States took place Thursday in Huntington Beach, Calif., led by 13-year-old Caroline Wiederkehr and several of her friends and classmates.

“It’s a green group of kids over here. We like solar a lot. It’s the location that’s a problem.”

Annelle Wiederkehr Mother of Caroline Wiederkehr, one of the protest’s leaders

The demonstration by more than 200 chanting, sign-waving youngsters in an upscale beach city quickly became a cause célèbre and drew television, radio, print and Internet journalists from throughout the Los Angeles area.

Contrary to many opinions expressed in Internet chat forums, the student leaders and virtually all of their followers made it clear that they are strong supporters of solar energy. What they oppose is the location of the project, directly in front of the handsome 90-year-old Dwyer Middle School.

“It’s a green group of kids over here,” said Annelle Wiederkehr, Caroline’s mom, who was the parent coordinator of the student-led protest. “We like solar a lot. It’s the location that’s a problem.”

Some of the students’ parents also are unhappy with the handling of the project by the Huntington Beach City Board of Education, and the police response to the students’ plan to protest.

Annelle Wiederkehr said many outside observers will conclude that parents prompted the students to protest the location of the solar project begun by Chevron Energy Solutions, but her daughter made it clear that wasn’t the case.

“I found out first and it was me who freaked out when I heard they were going to put the panels in front of the school,” Caroline Wiederkehr said. She said she urged her mom to attend a recent school board meeting on the matter. She and classmate Emily Hubbard, who have been triathlon teammates at the school, then enlisted friends and their parents to organize a protest.

Student leaders
Students said they took the initiative to
organize the protest, and they led the

“Solar is excellent,” Caroline said, but she and other students who were interviewed said they use the school’s spacious front lawn, where squat concrete stanchions have been installed for the solar array, for playing sports and for school graduation ceremonies, and that the solar installation would interfere with both.

The location recommended by Chevron Energy Solutions as the most cost-effective and approved by school officials would make the solar installation the visual focal point of the front of the school, which faces west, toward the ocean a few blocks away. The north front of the school features a large mural of a surfer, while the south front has a mural of an oil well. Both are important elements of the city’s cultural history, and the middle school students and athletes are known as the “Junior Oilers.”

Oil has been extracted from the city since the early 20th century, and the city has an offshore terminal for tankers carrying oil from the Alaska pipeline to an inland refinery. A pipeline from a Chevron refinery in El Segundo runs through the city.

Chevron Energy Solutions is a division of the California-based oil company. Many of the students wore T-shirts and carried signs that said “Save Our School” and “Stop Chevron!” with a red slash mark over the company’s logo.

Caroline and Emily wielded bullhorns like seasoned activists Thursday, herding the mass of chanting students across streets and down the block to a park because they lacked legal authority to hold a protest on the school property.

The students abandoned their original idea of chaining themselves to a fence at the front of the school, said Caroline, who called high-profile Los Angeles attorney Gloria Allred and persuaded her to come to the protest and speak to the students. Police had intimidated the student leaders after they began planning the demonstration about a month ago, Ms. Allred said, raising the prospect that they could be arrested.

Dwyer Middle School, Huntington Beach
Plans are to locate the array on part of the school’s spacious front lawn, where squat concrete stanchions have been installed. The area is used for sports and school graduation ceremonies, and students say that the solar installation would interfere with both.

Solar power opponents in the general public lit up Internet message boards in approval of the protest, but may be disappointed to learn that the students want solar at their school and that the demonstration was directed toward actions by school authorities, the Chevron subsidiary and police.

“Solar panels are great, but not where the school district and Chevron want them to be located,” Emily Hubbard said through her bullhorn. She and Caroline suggested the array be placed in a different location on the school grounds, one that school officials are considering.

The planning that led to the solar project began in 2008. Five schools in the district are to receive solar installations. Financing of the project has been mischaracterized in many Internet comments. The school board in July approved paying $7,875,000 not just for the solar projects but also for lighting replacement at all schools, heating and air-conditioning upgrades at two schools, and enclosing a wall at one school.

The cost of the solar projects will be repaid completely through rebates, incentives and savings on electricity bills, school officials said. The solar projects are expected to yield at least $1.9 million in additional savings over the 25-year life of the modules – money that could go to school programs, they said.

Solar panels
are great,
but not where
the school district
and Chevron
want them
to be located.

Emily Hubbard
Student protester

On the district’s website, school officials explained why the front lawn was chosen for the Dwyer installation.

“Initial shade analysis was conducted on roofs and other various areas at each site. Current and future maintenance was considered,” the website says. “Equipment already on roofs, condition of each roof and structural conditions of buildings were considered. The increased cost for current and future maintenance on roofs would have eliminated any savings from these projects. Funding would not have been available for this project without identified savings exceeding the total cost of the project. Costly structural analysis would have been required at Dwyer due to the age of the building and potential seismic issues with the building. Other considerations at each site included fire lanes, location of trees, electrical connection locations and availability of shade for students.”

The school district website adds that “options to relocate the solar arrays at Dwyer will include significant costs that need to be taken from the general fund budget. Soil testing, design, re-submittal to the Division of State Architect and additional construction cost will be the responsibility of the District. Estimated increased costs for alternatives being investigated will be a minimum of $150,000 to $250,000 depending on the alternative. Property line issues and the restrictions of the California Solar Initiative may add costs too.”

Parents, however, have questioned the cost estimates and have pointed out that Chevron Energy Solutions was chosen to provide the solar systems through a no-bid contract, which has been allowed for governmental solar installations under California law since the state’s energy crisis a decade ago. Some of the Dwyer parents believe that competitive bidding could have yielded a reduced project cost. New proposed state legislation would end the no-bid exemption for solar.

The students called high-profile Los Angeles
attorney Gloria Allred and persuaded her
to come to the protest and speak. She also
signed autographs.

The protesting middle school students, including many who said they did not personally know Caroline, Emily or the other leaders, all hewed to the same line. They heartily approve of solar energy, they said, but not on the front lawn. “Move our panels!” they chanted as they surrounded the student leaders and Ms. Allred, the attorney. “Glor-i-a! Glor-i-a!” they chanted.

One youngster toted a handmade sign saying that Jesus opposed the solar panels, but it was not clear whether the placard was crafted with tongue in cheek. “Jesus loves the environmental aspect of solar but thinks the panels should be moved,” the teenager said.

Ms. Allred said Caroline had implored her to come to Huntington Beach to support the students and speak to them about their civil rights.

“I agreed to come to the park to discuss free speech and their constitutional rights, as long as the students left the school in a peaceful, orderly manner when advised to do so by law enforcement,” Ms. Allred said. “I felt taking the protest to the park was a constructive alternative to protesting at the school since a permit was required to protest on the school grounds and none had been issued for the protest.”

Earlier this week, in a meeting with police about the planned protest, youngsters “felt that they were being threatened with arrest by the police if they held the protest at the school today” and chained themselves to a fence, as originally planned. The students were seeking to “exercise their constitutional right to free speech and free association and free assembly,” the attorney said.

Overreaching by authority figures was the protest’s underlying theme, represented in the students’ minds by school officials, the oil company’s subsidiary and the police. Caroline said that political beliefs and the desirability of solar were not the issues.

“I hope that in the future, both the school, Huntington Beach School District and law enforcement will remember today and the lesson that they should learn from it,” said Ms. Allred, who lingered after the protest to sign autographs for students grouped around her. “It is simply this: Encourage young people to speak up and speak out and show them how to do it in a lawful and constructive manner. This was a teaching moment and opportunity that unfortunately, the police and educators missed.”

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