Knowledge is Power at Miller School
Thomas Edison helped install his self-designed coal-powered dynamos at Miller School of Albemarle back in 1883, only three years after he perfected the technology, making Miller one of the first electrified schools in the country. “The dynamos were converted to hydroelectric power in the 1890s with the construction of a 450,000-gallon reservoir on campus,” said Miller School’s Dean Peter Hufnagel, “and though the plant has not produced electricity since the 1950s, the Edison power house still stands on campus as a reminder of Miller’s past.”
That is about to change with the launch of an inter-disciplinary project to bring the power house back to life by resuscitating the old equipment and using it to power the pumps and grow lights for a system of hydroponic bays inside the historic structure. After years of use as storage, the small brick building, perched on the edge of the school’s athletic fields, was stuffed with junk, “snake-infested and dark with drop ceilings and boarded-up windows,” said Hufnagel. The students did 90 percent of the cleanup work, clearing it out, pulling down interior walls, and uncovering the windows to reveal a beautiful space with exposed brick walls and stone tile floors, a lovely arched transom window, and four original turbines set in the floor.
Since original replacement parts were hard to come by, a team of engineering students and faculty aimed to rebuild one of the turbines by cannibalizing the other three, and the plan worked. Donations from community partners such as Sage Dining (Miller School’s food service provider) and Schuyler Greens, owned by Miller trustee and alumnus John McMahon, jump-started the project, which will pave the way for a schoolwide engineering and environmental program centered around the power house.
The school envisions the Edison house as a research lab where students will gain hands-on experience in power production and turbine operation. “In addition, we see students having opportunities to study hydroponic farming and plant nutrition, and to eventually produce greens that could be used in Miller’s kitchen or to establish our own farmer’s market,” said Hufnagel. Once up and running, these programs could go hand in hand with instruction in land management, culinary arts, animal husbandry, and solar power, using the school’s 1,600 acres of woods and meadows, two lakes, and 120-acre apple orchard as a living, outdoor classroom.
Head of School Michael Drude sees the power house project as one that holds great potential to engage students meaningfully. “As the way we educate children continues to change, Miller School of Albemarle is committed to making hands-on, experiential education a priority as we shape the next generations of doers,” he said.