Engineering a Solar Tomorrow

    When walking from Gilman Parking Structure to Warren Lecture Hall this quarter, you may notice a huge LED sign with flashing red letters right outside the Powell-Focht Bionengineering Hall, best known for its neon display of the infamous vices and virtues. The sign isn’t for any artistic purpose, but is actually used to display the amount of solar energy that the building is generating.

    Tim Etler/Guardian

    The UCSD Powell Solar Energy Project began this summer with a goal to conserve energy by using solar power as its source of electricity. The solar-powered Powell Building in Earl Warren College is using photovoltaic

    technology ­— the field of semiconductors that involves the direct conversion of sunlight into energy — to generate its power.

    Far away from view on the rooftop of the building, there are two different systems being used to generate energy from solar power: a skyline and a solar quilt. The skyline is the large panel commonly associated with solar technology, which is tilted and uses its angle to take in more sunlight while the solar quilt absorbs light by laying flat on the rooftop.

    “The skyline has been proven to be more efficient when comparing the two, although both are very important for the project,” said Dave Weil, director of Building Commissioning and Sustainability for the project.

    With all the concern regarding American oil consumption, solar power is often hailed as one possible source of the renewable energy on which the world will one day have to rely. More and more people are becoming aware of the fact that oil and natural gases will eventually run out, and that other sources for electricity must be taken into consideration. UCSD has won numerous awards over the years for energy efficiency and is widely recognized as a leader in the implementation of green practices across all levels of campus operation. According to Weil, UCSD, like each of the UC campuses, is deeply interested in energy efficiency.

    In July 2003, the UC Board of Regents unanimously voted in favor of a Clean Energy and Green Building policy, which stated that 10 megawatts of renewable energy, equivalent to the power used by 5,000 homes, be installed across the system’s 10 campuses, with each campus generating a total of one megawatt. UCSD is currently in the process of drafting contract documents, forming what is called a Power Purchase Agreement, involving private investors in funding the solar energy project.

    “A federal bill was passed giving investors [a] 30 percent tax credit for solar energy,” Weil said. “This tax credit is a great incentive for private investors to fund solar energy projects.”

    The rationale for the tax incentive is that private interest in the project makes it a much more viable project. However, solar power does have its drawbacks, the two main problems being cost and efficiency. Currently, the price of installation is very high and the solar panels can only get 10 to 15 percent of their solar energy converted into electricity. The total cost of the Powell Solar Energy Project was $81,500.

    “Right now it would take 20 years to make that money back,” said physics professor Kim Griest, who teaches a class on energy and the environment.

    However, because the demand is increasing, the price is expected to decrease in the next 10 to 15 years. Efficiency is also expected to increase.

    “The fuel is free; solar is clean and terrorist-proof,” Griest said, emphasizing the fact that the sun is not owned by anyone, unlike oil and natural gases the United States is receiving from foreign countries. Although solar energy currently has some disadvantages, it’s expected to become more widely used in the years to come, due to continued technology and research.

    The Powell Solar Energy Project isn’t the only plan for energy efficiency on campus, and program coordinators are trying hard to inform students about methods to curb energy waste.

    “We want students to conserve and know that we’re doing a lot and working on getting more renewable energy,” Weil said.

    “Right now it’s not in the consciousness of the majority of the people,” Griest said. “If we want to live here, we have to take care of it,” he said.

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