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The Sun Shines on WPI’s Solar Project

By Rachel Faugno

Kneeling, from left, project team 2 members Mike LaBossiere, Sid Rupani, Devin Brande, and Ye Wang; standing, from left, Matt Arner ‘98, team 1 members Joe Chapman, Haitham Al-Beik, and Jason Wailgum, Rick Vaz, co-advisor to both teams, and team 2 co-advisor Kankana Mukherjee. Not pictured: team 1 member Joe Ledue and team 1 co-advisor Brian King.

Last year’s “Solar Energy and Photovoltaics Education in Worcester” IQP has been so successful that it will be included in a Web-based resource for teaching engineering in the nation’s schools.

More and more, college campuses are embracing alternative energy. Last year, an Interactive Qualifying Project to promote awareness of sustainable energy—specifically, solar energy—throughout Worcester County resulted in a greening of the WPI campus. “This is a nice step forward in green energy at WPI,” says Brian King, project co-advisor and assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering (ECE), about the installation of solar panels on the roof of Morgan Hall. The four-panel installation, which is connected to the power grid in the building, generates roughly one kW—the energy required to light ten 100-watt lightbulbs—of clean, renewable power. “But the larger purpose of the project,” adds King, “was to generate awareness of sustainable energy on campus and throughout the Worcester community. There’s a lack of know-ledge about these issues that we wanted to address through the project’s educational component.”

Student research showed that sustainable energy accounts for less than 1 percent of global power production. Sources such as wind and solar power, which conserve natural resources and produce minimal pollution, are costly to imple-ment and require substantial installation space. Furthermore, federal funding for sustainable energy development has decreased in recent years. According to project advisor Rick Vaz, associate professor of ECE, “One way to address the problem is to build public support for research and development of environ-mentally friendly energy. The obvious place to begin is right here on campus. We need to set a good example both for our students and for the Worcester community. Installing solar panels is one small way we can do that.”

The project, which involved two teams of students working consecutively, began with a proposal from Matt Arner ’98, one of Vaz’s former advisees, who now works for Heliotronics, a company that promotes solar energy through education. Vaz explains, “The company was interested in working with WPI, and Matt was helpful in guiding the students toward resources to make this a reality.” Arner and Vaz wrote a proposal to the WPI Class of 1975, which agreed to provide the initial funding. They were then able to use the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative’s incentives to help make the system financially viable.

The team effort led to the installation of a photovoltaic array and a Heliotronics Solar Learning Lab, a data acquisition system with interactive software that broadcasts information over the local area network. Sid Rupani ’04 (ME), a member of the second team, notes that the process of getting the panels installed was, in itself, an education. “We worked with dozens of stakeholders, from WPI’s Plant Services and Network Operations to vendors and funding organizations,” he recalls. “This was by far the most real-world contact I’d had on a project at WPI.”

Another project stakeholder was the Worcester public school system. Working with Martha Cyr, director of K–12 Outreach at WPI, the students designed educational lessons for middle school and high school students to promote solar energy, building from a fundamental understanding of renewable energy to the specifics of solar energy and photovoltaics.

“The materials were designed to fit state educational standards,” says Cyr. “We tested them during professional development workshops for teachers and received very favorable feedback. In fact, these resources are so strong that they’ll be added to the teachers’ resource Web site [teachengineering.org] and will be available nationwide.”

The success of the project was a true team effort. The first team, which focused on planning, was coadvised by Vaz and Kankana Mukherjee, assistant professor of management, and included Haitham Al-Beik ’05 (ECE), Joe Chapman ’05 (ECE), Joe Ledue ’04 (ME), and Jason Wailgum ’05 (ME). The second group focused on implementation; those students were Rupani, Devin Brande ’05 (ME), Michael LaBossiere ’05 (ECE), and Ye Wang ’05 (ECE).

“If enough people are aware and willing to invest in green energy,” says LaBossiere, “it can make a big difference in how our energy demands impact the planet.”

“This may be a small step, but it demonstrates an awareness of green energy solutions,” adds Wang. “WPI can claim to use green power on campus. More important, it can make a significant contribution to building public understanding and support for sustainable energy.”

Vaz agrees. “Our primary goal was to get more people—students, faculty, and staff—to think about energy use and learn a bit about renewable energy sources, and to allow WPI to become a resource to the Worcester community. We are hoping that some of our student groups that take an interest in social and environmental issues can help make that happen by following up on some of the recommendations that came from these two IQPs. This was a community effort, and we hope it can result in many returned benefits to the community.”

Chris Salter, associate director of plant services at WPI, at left, and Brande make points during the final project presentation.

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