Ecospeak: Solar panels uncovered

October 31, 2008

by Meredith Maines

Four electrical engineering majors discovered solar panels are not today’s answer for alternative energy by placing a test system on the roof of Nethken Hall last year.

Colin Rodgers, a team member and a Tech alumnus, said the group’s senior design team expounded on the topical idea given to them by their project advisor.

“Our team came up with the idea to integrate power into the Tech power grid to make up for the extra power Tech sometimes has to buy from the City of Ruston,” Rodgers said.

He said two other team members, one with connections to Southwestern Electric Power Company, acquired a $6,000 grant from the business through their project proposal.

“They were impressed enough to give us a grant,” Rodgers said.
“We used that money to put together a test bed system to give us an idea of the potential of solar power use, and possible drawbacks, in the Ruston area.”

He said they found many drawbacks; too many, in fact, to deem the energy source a viable alternative for the university.

Matt Pacobit, co-writer of the proposal and Tech alumnus, said the project tried to account for an extra megawatt of energy the university requires but does not produce through its physical plant.

He said the team discovered the production of a solar panel requires more energy than it supplies in its lifetime.

“We realized we wouldn’t be saving any energy,” he said.
“They’re not that efficient; you’re not actually helping the environment.”

Considering that a solar array large enough to generate the necessary one megawatt of power would require two to three acres of South Campus territory, Pacobit said the project would not be actualized.

James Liberatos, dean of the College of Applied and Natural Science, said South Campus could not afford to lose any of its land to the panels.

“My question at the time was, and still is, ‘Where would the horses and cows graze?'” he said.
“Taking land away for construction of solar panels on our South Campus would hamper our ability to provide for the animals we maintain.”

Pacobit said something should be done to offset the surcharges from electrical companies that penalize customers for “available energy.”

“Tech gets charged an availability charge of [approximately] $14,000 per month just to sit there and be available if Tech’s generator shuts down,” he said.

Although Rodgers said the solar panels were not economically profitable last year, in time the technology will improve.

“Essentially it would take 40 years to recover the cost of the system through money [saved] from the City of Ruston,” he said.
“The power conversion efficiency of photovoltaic cells is always increasing, so it may be more feasible in five or 10 years.”

Justin Gamble, a member of this year’s senior design team and a senior electrical engineering major, said the group will attempt to capitalize on these improvements using last year’s equipment.

“Our design would be to create a control system for the panels,” he said.
“The system would measure the intensity of light, then rotate the panels to improve efficiency.”