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Magazines > Computers in Libraries > December 2019

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Vol. 39 No. 10 — December 2019

Welcome to the Solar Garden: How We Use Solar Energy to Teach Sustainability
by Valerie Bell and Rhiannon Eades


Athens-Clarke County Library is the main public library in Athens-Clarke County, Ga., a city/county of 126,797 people and home to the University of Georgia. The library is the center of the community and a hub for many events and activities. 

Through its vision statement, Athens-Clarke County Library endeavors to “Engage Communities and Exceed Expectations” in all programs and services. Its mission is to provide information and resources that address the needs of the community, foster enjoyment and a love of reading, and provide a repository of the history and culture of Athens. By reimagining its services and programs, the library system was named Georgia Public Library of the Year for 2017 by the Georgia Public Library Service.

“Clean energy and sustainability are important priorities for Athens-Clarke County, so we were excited to learn of the library’s opportunity to install a solar array,” says Athens-Clarke County mayor Kelly Girtz.

Libraries have long been champions of sustainability and providing information and resources to the public. The idea of libraries using solar panels to generate clean energy, while educating the public about its value, makes sense. This is evidenced by the solar array installation at Athens-Clarke County Library in Athens, Ga.

Community Fit

Athens-Clarke County Library serves as the headquarters for the Athens Regional Library System in northeast Georgia. The 90,000-square-foot library sits on a sprawling, park-like 5-acre campus. We are a city library and face all the advantages and challenges one might expect. The library is centrally located next door to a middle school, 3,000 feet from an elementary school, about four blocks from the local high school, and approximately five blocks from an alternative school. It’s an ideal location to provide outreach and education to families and children of all ages. 

The solar installation is a natural fit for Athens-Clarke County Library, which underwent an extensive renovation and expansion project in 2013, achieving Silver-level LEED certification. Other cost-saving and energy-saving initiatives in recent years have included installing LED lighting throughout the building and updating the library’s HVAC system to a more efficient one. The library is also one of the county’s sites for public electric car-charging stations, with two charging units in the parking lot. Our efforts have not gone unnoticed by civic leaders.

The library’s solar structures were funded through a $100,000 solar grant awarded by EBSCO in 2017. Upon notification of the grant, we immediately spoke with the Athens-Clarke County board of commissioners and received the help of the Athens-Clarke County sustainability officer, Andrew Saunders. He walked us through the process and worked very closely with the library staffers in developing an RFP, helping to identify the best location for the proposed installation and investigating the type of solar panels that would best meet the library’s needs and yield the most solar energy while maintaining our park-like setting. Our project also supports long-term community goals.

The Solar Garden
The Solar Garden
“The solar panel structures are a beautiful, visual reminder for everyone who visits the library about solar power’s utility and practical application
in everyday life. We want to set an example for Athens-Clarke County residents and visitors of our commitment to environmental responsibility,” says Athens-Clarke County mayor Kelly Girtz.

The Installation

Visitors to Athens-Clarke County Library are now greeted by two ground-mounted solar panel structures in front of the building. These structures—a Solar Spotlight Curve solar power tree and a Smartflower solar flower—comprise the library’s solar installation, which we call our solar garden. 

The 17-foot-tall stationary solar tree is a fixed, six-panel array that provides 120 square feet of shade and looks like a giant flower with a curved green stem. It has a 1.7 KW (DC) capacity and an annual output of 2,200 kilowatt-hours (kWh) ( Since installation, this array has produced 125–250 kWh of energy per month for our building. The solar tree also features the library’s logo as the center floret, which can be seen by passing drivers. We expect the logo will also be a visible identifier on updated Google Earth maps.

The solar flower is a 194-square-foot structure with 12 solar petals that track the sun throughout the day to efficiently collect energy—just like a real sunflower. Its petals retract at night and during high wind speeds. The solar flower has a nominal output of 2.5 KW (DC) and an annual output of 4,000–6,200 kWh ( It was chosen for the library’s project as a visually appealing alternative to solar roof panels.

The solar garden is just a first step in our effort to help the county meet its commitment to 100% renewable energy. The solar and LED lighting retrofit programs are projected to cut our annual carbon dioxide emissions by nearly 59 tons per year, while saving the library approximately $10,000 a year. However, perhaps more importantly, the solar garden serves as a highly visible, attractive example of environmental sustainability to the community; it provides unique educational opportunities for the public. The solar tree and solar flower stand together in a green space in front of our building and are visible to those who visit the library or see it from the street. And, as the building receives regularly scheduled roof replacement in the future, the county is committed to increasing the amount of solar deployed at the library.

Visitors frequently comment about the solar garden, expressing pride in their library’s innovation. Teens take advantage of the shade provided by the solar tree, and children marvel at the beauty of the solar flower’s petals. The structures also complement the library’s outdoor art, which consists of two metal sculptures on campus.

Community Outreach

Patrons can view the energy output from the solar panels via an interactive kiosk in the main lobby of the library. The kiosk is a floor-standing model with a 42" screen. The energy output is displayed on the kiosk by a web-based platform that allows visitors to view—in real-time or in reports—the details of energy consumption and production as well as electrical loads for the facility. The kiosk provides information, monitoring, and live demonstrations. 

This data can help patrons understand how solar energy collection is affected by changing weather conditions, time of day, and other factors. For example, patrons are able to compare energy outputs and see how much of an impact a cloudy day has on solar energy collection versus a sunny day. Students working on class projects can see how much solar energy is collected at various times during the day. Over time, they will be able to compare the differences in energy output at different times of the year. The solar installation’s performance and data are displayed in a variety of ways to increase engagement and understanding. For example, the library’s carbon footprint is one of the measures displayed on the kiosk. This metric demonstrates the solar garden’s impact in terms of the acreage required to sequester the carbon generated by the facility. (While we occasionally find patrons in our busy lobby using the solar data kiosk to access the web, we hope to fix the glitch in the kiosk software that lets them do that ASAP.)

The solar installation is a physical component of the library’s continued commitment to environmental and green energy initiatives. Library staffers offer a range of creative programming designed to educate people of all ages about the benefits of solar power and other sustainable initiatives. 

For example, the library partners with the Athens-Clarke County Unified Government each spring to host the Green Life Expo, a free community-wide event in which businesses, organizations, and residents come together to learn how to reduce their carbon footprints. This event draws hundreds of people each year and includes vendor exhibits, family activities, and seminars on things such as solar panel installation, recycling, and composting.

In September 2018, the library hosted an evening program in which residents learned how a local private school uses solar arrays to save money on its power bill and make a positive environmental impact at the same time. Many people in the audience expressed interest in finding information about how to retrofit their homes to use solar panels, and representatives from a nearby solar installation company were on hand to answer questions. The audience was enthusiastic about the potential utility of solar panels, not just for power bill savings, but also for the benefits to the environment. 

Of course, not all programs about the power of the sun are strictly educational. Sometimes, they’re also delicious. The library’s teen services department demonstrated how the sun’s rays can be hot enough to toast a marshmallow. Teens crafted solar-powered ovens against the backdrop of the solar flower to make s’mores. In doing so, they learned how the power of the sun can heat up a foiled-covered pizza box and make a yummy treat.

Children’s area staffers frequently plan programs for young children and families that include upcycled crafts, which highlight sustainability as an everyday habit. For example, families have created unique sea creatures from plastic water bottles at a special water-themed storytime. At another event, children made their own musical instruments from coffee cans and other donated materials, before enjoying a drum circle activity.

Underneath the solar power tree
Underneath the solar power tree
“Our community has made the commitment to reach 100% renewable energy by 2035. To reach this, we conserve as much energy as possible and then deploy renewable energy systems to support our facilities,” says Andrew Saunders, Athens-Clarke County’s sustainability officer. “The library’s solar array is one of several installed at county facilities throughout Athens. It’s a great fit for the library, because of their environmentally sensitive reputation and their role as an educational resource in our community.”
Smartflower solar flower
Smartflower solar flower
A patron kiosk shows the gardenís energy output
A patron kiosk shows the garden’s energy output
Kiosk detail
Kiosk detail


The authors wish to thank the following library staffers for their assistance with this project: IT manager Greg Deal, technology trainer Sean Hribal, and grant writer Donna Brumby.

Rhiannon EadesValerie BellValerie Bell  ( [left] is the executive director of the five-county Athens Regional Library System, headquartered in Athens, Ga. Under her leadership, the library system has formed many community partnerships and wasnamed Georgia Public Library of the Year for 2017.

Rhiannon Eades
 ( [right] is the public information officer for the Athens Regional Library System. She has helped share the library’s story for more than 10 years and has a background in journalism.