Friday June 03, 2011
Nestled at the base of the Sandia Mountains in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where the winters hover around a balmy 50 degrees, a team of renewable energy researchers keep their fingers crossed for a frigid, wet winter in Vermont. But there’s a sunny disposition behind those cold wishes: comparing data on cold-climate solar power from the University of Vermont’s Miller Equine Farm in South Burlington with other data sites around the country, researchers will better understand the long-term potential of solar energy generation.
UVM’s Sandia project is one of a handful of new solar developments, explained Bob Vaughan, director of Capital Planning and Management. “It’s exciting that we’re getting into this field,” he said. In addition to existing panels on the university’s power plant and a Spear Street mini-farm, UVM has plans to install solar panels at the Miller Equine Center this summer.
The UVM-sponsored solar mini-farm at the U.S. Forest Service building on Spear Street in South Burlington already generates power for the city, Vaughan explained. Seventeen solar trackers, an array of panels set on a rotating post in the ground, use GPS and a motor to follow the sun throughout the day. AllEarth Renewables in Williston installed and monitors the trackers, which together generate 95,880 kilowatts of power each year.
That power, in turn, feeds into the grid and functions as an offset for UVM. Green Mountain Power purchases the electricity—with solar credits going to the school—further benefitting UVM as it pursues a LEED certification for renovations to the Aiken Center at the Rubenstein School of Environmental Resources. A LEED, or Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design, certified building meets certain sustainability criteria: the Spear Street trackers produce 30–35 percent of the Aiken building’s projected energy needs.
Also on the drawing board is a student-conceived solar array at the Miller Equine Center. A student-levied, $10-a-semester tuition fee funds the Clean Energy Fund, managed by UVM’s student government. Funded exclusively by the Clean Energy Fund, the school would site the proposed solar panels on the ground or along the horse barn’s roof.
“We’re going to have to go on what the roof could support to determine how many panels could go up there,” said Vaughan. Eventually, energy from the panels will offset the power needs of computers, lights and appliances in the horse barn.
Just to the west of the Miller Equine Center in South Burlington, a jungle-gym-like cage holds three small solar panels, monitored by UVM in conjunction with Sandia National Laboratories and New Mexico State University. Senator Bernie Sanders secured federal funding for a national project studying degradation—or environmental wear and tear—on different types of solar panels in varying climates. Two more panels will join the existing three, each made by a different manufacturer.
While Vermont monitors the winter’s toll on the panels, an identical structure in Cocoa, Florida, tests hot, humid and coastal conditions, while a third site in New Mexico endures hot and dry conditions. The so-called Photovoltaics Project is part of Sandia National Laboratories’ research into domestic energy security, under the auspice of the U.S. Department of Energy and Lockheed Martin.
For its part, UVM remains sanguine about a solar future. Although the school doesn’t have any further solar plans in the short-term, Vaughan believes they’ll continue to explore possibilities. “This is a new area for us,” he said, “that I can only see expanding in future years.”
SOURCE: Eric Blokland, Correspondent