Renewable energy majors install solar panels

The first graduates majoring in renewable energy at John Brown University will leave behind a project that lasts.

Seniors Chuck Cheng, Micah McCall and Amanda Reed are near completion of their senior project, which aims to install several solar panels on the roof of the Balzer Technology Center beginning in May.

The solar panels will mainly be an educational tool for future renewable energy majors.

Ted Song, assistant professor of engineering, compared the project’s value to the renewable energy program with KLRC to the communications department. The solar panels will serve as a hands-on tool for next semester’s solar energy class. To that effect, the seniors plan to install at least four systems of solar panels, each using differing systems and materials.

“We don’t want to just buy the most inexpensive panels,” said Song. “It’s not just for the students this semester, but for the students who will come in 2020, 2025.”

Steve Brankle, director of facilities services and sustainability, said the solar panels will cost around $50,000.

Reed explained the importance of the project, “The thing I truly love about renewable energy is that it really is a hands-on program. I think that makes it soar above the rest.”

Another purpose for the project is to publicize the renewable energy program to prospective students. The panels will be clearly visible from the road, and, because students will need access to the panels for research, will also be accessible on tours of the building.

“It’s a great marketing piece for the renewable energy (program),” said Reed. “It’s something for students to … see that we’re moving toward sustainability.”

Environmental sustainability is another goal of the project. The panels will make a marked difference in the building’s electric bill. Though the electricity will by no means be provided for entirely by the panels, “in terms of sustainability, JBU’s moving in the right direction,” said Song.

Brankle said the initial estimates for the project predict a 25-year payback.

“It’s not just for the money; it’s for the environment,” said Song.

The solar panels will also bolster the building’s recent LEED Certification. Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design is a voluntary program from the U.S. Green Building Council that encourages building owners and operators to be more environmentally friendly. A building must meet a number of prerequisites to be LEED certified, earning at least 40 points on a 110-point scale. The Center’s solar panels will count in the building’s favor when its certification is renewed.

The project is in its final stages of planning now, but the students did not reach this point without some difficulty. The installation will require several penetrations in the building’s roof, so there was some trouble reconciling the project with the roof’s warranty.

“We’re learning as we go, for sure,” said Reed.

However, the students and their advisors have high hopes for the project. Brankle was particularly optimistic.

“This’ll give [students] real world experience as they go out into the world,” he said. “I think some of them will use it in great ways.”

Song agreed that this is not just any project. “We want to learn these things not just for our own benefit, but for the world.”