Student Research Shows Solar Energy Could Save Money for School District

Students Will Present Their Findings to Residents This Thursday at Leicester High School
Media Contact
February 26, 2009

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WORCESTER, Mass. – Feb. 26, 2009 – A team of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) students is researching the feasibility of installing solar energy systems atop each of the town of Leicester’s school buildings to save the community thousands of dollars annually while also being environmentally friendly. The three students will present their research findings before town residents at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 26, in Leicester High School’s auditorium.

Juniors Christopher Gabrielson and Stephen Hanly, mechanical engineering majors from Westford, Mass., and Charlton native Laura Montville, a junior chemical engineering major, will recommend to Leicester officials that three separate solar energy system be installed: a 100-kilowatt system for the high school and 50-kilowatt systems for the middle school and Memorial School. The project’s estimated net cost would be $508,750. To pay for the project, the students will suggest that town officials apply for federal and state grants and funding from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative.

If implemented, the project will enable the town to save money on utilities by using clean energy, which is also an educational opportunity for the town. Currently, the town spends approximately $300,000 each year on electricity; the high school alone spends about $80,000. The town’s investment in solar energy systems would be paid back in about eight years through energy savings; after that, electricity would be produced at no cost to the town.After 25 years, the guaranteed lifetime of a solar power system, the school will have saved nearly $50,000 annually on electricity bills, at the current rate of electricity, or approximately $1.8 million.

"The Leicester Public Schools are very fortunate and grateful to have these bright and talented students from WPI conduct their project with a focus on assisting the school district in looking at viable alternatives to meeting our energy needs in a ‘green,’ cost-efficient manner," said Leicester School Supt. Paul Soojian. "In doing so, they not only accomplished their own goals for their studies at WPI, but have also performed a tremendous service for the school district and the Leicester community."

The students began their Interactive Qualifying Project (IQP) for Leicester in September by looking into the feasibility of installing a 50-kilowatt wind turbine, like the one built at Holy Name High School in Worcester. The initial IQP, which is one of two projects required of WPI undergraduates, was called 'Leicester Wind Study.' As the students’ research progressed, however, they soon discovered that while a wind turbine in Leicester would be possible, it would be an expensive projectand that the winds in the greater Leicester area were not conducive to the efficient generation of electricity. This finding was also supported by a 2008 study by Global Energy Concepts that found that there were marginal-to-low wind speeds in the area. Leicester is also in proximity to Worcester Regional Airport, so a wind turbine would have height restrictionsthatwould limit the usefulness of some of the turbine locations studied.

The students determined that solar power would be a more cost-effective option. Leicester’s school buildings would be ideal locations for solar energy panels, according to the team, because there is little-to-no shading on most of the roof surfaces.

Throughout their research, which will be submitted March 6 to faculty in report format, the students learned about various alternative energy technologies, had the opportunity to speak with many experts in the field, and discovered how a moderate initialinvestment can result in long-term savings. The students said they hope Leicester officials and residents will see how much potential this project has to positively impact their community and that they will work toward implementing the team’s ideas. After the presentation, the public will be invited to provide feedback and ask the students questions.

"We are very excited that we have this opportunity, and we hope very much that the town will go through with our suggestions," the team said in a joint statement, noting that municipalities across Massachusetts are facing steep budget cuts during the economic crisis, and that their project could help the town of Leicester save money in energy bills while also being environmentally friendly."'It would mean a lot to us to have all of our hard work result in something that will be impacting the town for years to come."

The team is advised by Leicester resident Fred J. Looft, professor and head of WPI’s Electrical and Computer Engineering Department; Scott Broskey, information technology manager, Boston Advisors LLC, also a Leicester Planning Board and Historical Commission member; and James Dunn, owner/consultant, Energy Technology Consultants, of Millbury, Mass.

 "It is incredibly gratifying to be involved with a project that not only exhibits the best of WPI students identifying and solving important problems, but is also beneficial to the town I live in," said Looft. "This project, if implemented, would save money for the town, but it would also help promote Leicester as a leader in renewable energy among surrounding communities."

The students’ IQP is part of WPI’s Global Projects Program, within the university’s Interdisciplinary and Global Studies Division. Students, working in teams under the guidance of faculty advisors, address a problem at the intersection of science, technology, and society. The projects are conducted either locally or at the more than 20 project centers WPI sponsors around the world.

"WPI has strong emphasis on group work, and this project was one piece of our education at the university," the students said. "We are grateful for this experience, which has helped prepared us for the real world."