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Friday, May 05, 2006

News From My Backyard: University of Oregon Student Group Completes Final Phase of $100,000 Solar Project

The Ecological Design Center announced last week that the third and final phase of its $100,000 project to bring solar energy to the University of Oregon campus is complete. The new Solar Kiosk (powered by SunView interactive software) will provide every student who visits the UO's Student Recreation Center (SRC) with real-time information about exactly how much power the rooftop array is producing. The real-time information will also be available at the EDC's website.

In the spring of 2001, the Ecological Design Center (EDC) was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Associated Studens of the University of Oregon (the student government) to install a grid-tied photovoltaic system on university rooftops. The grant’s goal was to fund enduring and environmentally responsible projects that benefit the entire student body.

The Ecological Design Center was able to increase the size of the project by 25% by taking advantage of a tax credit given by the Oregon Department of Energy for renewable energy projects. With this money, the EDC successfully installed a 3-kilowatt (kW) solar array at the Erb Memorial Union, phase one of the project, as well as the 12-kW array at the SRC, the second phase of the project. The power produced by these two solar arrays also offsets a portion of the UO’s utility bill, and has done so since installation.

The EDC’s original proposal to the ASUO outlined three main goals for the Solar project: to produce clean, renewable energy; to put the UO on the map as a "green" campus; and to generate energy that would save money for the student body.

This project is a showcase for future energy-conscious development on campus and a multi-departmental cooperative effort made it possible. The 12-kW solar array is composed of 84 modules and sits on the roof above the SRC’s basketball courts. It was installed by Energy Design Co. and Solar Assist, subcontractors for L.R. Brabham. The 84 150-Watt modules were made in Spain by Isofoton. The four inverters used were 'StarInverters' produced in Bend, Oregon by PVPowered,, who also provided technical assistance for the Solar Kiosk project.

Housed in a wooden cabinet and mounted on the wall opposite the SRC’s rental desk, the Solar Kiosk is designed to meet both observation and educational needs. It contains a computer and monitor that relays real-time data about how much energy the photovoltaic panels are producing, and how much energy they have produced since installation. The Solar Kiosk will also provide general information about the benefits of solar power, including the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, the decentralization of power production, and the lack of dependence on foreign oil. This same information will also be available to anyone with Internet access through an interactive website at

The EDC’s Campus Sustainability Coordinator, Jesse Jenkins, who is a computer science major, designed the software needed to translate the solar data into a readable display with a team of UO computer science undergraduates. Graduate architecture student Dustann Jones then built the wooden cabinet that holds the display. This final phase of the solar project received funding through EWEB’s Partners in Education program as well as a generous contribution from Architecture Professor Emeritus, John Reynolds.

[Full disclosure: this is, of course, an article about the succesful efforts of a group I am heavily involved in. I just wanted to take this opportunity to highlight what the University of Oregon and the Ecological Design Center is up to and to spread the word on the SunView website. Check it out when you have the chance and let me know what you think...]


Anonymous said...

How long is the payback?

Robert McLeod said...

It would be amusing to have a display that shows how much energy the kiosk is consuming as well.

Jesse Jenkins said...

That would be interesting but if what you're getting at is that the computer eats up a sizable chunk of the array's output, you're a bit off.

The kiosk runs off of an old Dell (circa 2000) we got for free from surplus at the UO as well as a flat panel screen. I'm not sure the exact power specs on the Dell tower, but a newer one consumes about 375 watts.* The 17" screen consumes about 35 watts bringing the kiosk's power use to a total of 410 watts.

It operates during the day (8:00 am to 10:00 pm), automitically shutting off at night (for energy savings!) and turning back on in the morning. So, at about 410 watts for 14 hours a day, the kiosk consumes 5.7 kWh per day.

In contrast, the solar array pumps out on average, about 3 kW over a 24 hour period (check out the year trends page and you'll see what I mean). So that's 72 kWh per day.

Given those figures, the kiosk consumes about 8% of the solar arrays output. Not great, but not sizable. We could have cut that down by installing a much more energy efficient computer in the kiosk (see note below), but we had to make due with what was free. If anyone cares to write us a $500 check to by a more energy efficient computer, be my guest...

*Note: 375 watts is rediculous - my Apple Powerbook laptop (with a 15" screen!) consumes only 45 watts (maximum)! Clearly, cheap Dell towers are wasting plenty of energy... If we had some extra grant money, we could have purchased a Mac Mini or some other Energy Star rated computer to run the kiosk and saved about 85% of the power used by the computer but oh well...

The moral of the story to all of you though concerned with energy efficiency and contemplating that new computer: make SURE its ENERGY STAR rated! This can make a big (like 85%) difference as the above example illustrates...

Anonymous said...

Looking through this I'm a little confused. The web page says that since Jan, 2005, the installation has produced 19,808 kw-hr. That would be less than 40 kwh/day, not 72. Was there downtime or other problems?

Also, the page says that has saved $4952. Is electricity really $0.25/kwh in Oregon?

Considering a low rate of return on the $100k investment it seems to me like this installation is producing $0.35/kwh electricity which is good for solar but nowhere near competitive. Also, keep in mind that these costs do nothing to maintain the infrastructure for the backup power required when the sun doesn't shine, which becomes a major issue when solar/wind becomes a significant (approx 20%) of the generation mix. This looks like one of the better installations I have seen but it reinforces the need for a major breakthrough (factor of 3 or so) in solar cell efficiency.

Jesse Jenkins said...

Ken, that total kWh figure does look low. I'll take a look into that. Its probably an issue with the data monitoring.

As for the price per kWh, I was wondering when someone would do the math and spot the 25 cents per kWh price. No, electricity is not 25 cents per kWh in Oregon (yikes that would be high!), but we are recieveing a generous production incentive from our local utility, EWEB, that brings the price per kWh we recieve for electricity generated by our array to 25 cents per kWh for the first 10 years of production. This is in part to represent the environmental benefits of offsetting traditional power purchasing (i.e. Green Tags). Its also designed to help pay off the costs of the array quicker - the Green Tags value for the lifetime of the system is all payed during the first 10 years, hence the 25 cents per kWh price.

Prices in Oregon are around 6-7 cents per kWh (retail). The UO pays a bit less than that as its one of EWEB's largest bulk purchasers of electricity.