solar energy

Beth Ferguson, visiting research scholar and Sol Desing Lab CEO, displays the inner workings of the solar charging station.

Photo Credit: Chris Foxx | Daily Texan Staff

Students may soon have a website to learn about how much energy the solar charging stations on campus produce, store and distribute. Sol Design Lab, which works to design energy-efficient products, designed the two solar charging stations already on campus and is working to create software to collect and communicate data about the stations. 

Beth Ferguson, visiting research scholar and CEO of Sol Design Lab, spoke with students Friday about the prospect of having new solar charging stations on campus. The new stations would boast several improvements, including a more affordable design and an app or digital screen that displays how much solar energy the station produces and devices use.

The two charging stations on campus are located at the intersection of 23rd Street and San Jacinto Boulevard and on the Perry-Castañeda Library Plaza. 

UT is one of the first schools to harness solar energy as a way for students to charge their personal portable devices. Ferguson, a UT alumna, said other universities have made attempts to do the same, but on a smaller scale.

“There’s probably little, small, off-the-grid solar projects, but definitely the biggest charging stations are here at UT-Austin,” Ferguson said. “There’s a couple companies that have solar umbrellas that are more portable, so I think this is one of the bigger systems.”

Since last summer, Ferguson has been collecting data showing how much sunlight the current stations absorb and produce. She will present the data in hopes of convincing the Green Fee Committee, which allocates funds for campus environmental projects, to continue funding the project so the data can be readily available to students and researchers.

Ferguson said the main challenge when trying to build a solar charging station is finding a location, since shaded areas hinder the production of solar energy.

“[We use] a solar pathfinder,” Ferguson said. “It’s a little, sort of plexiglass bubble calendar where you can chart where shade obstacles are. We had students from our workshops walk around the campus and find the sunniest locations.”

Biology sophomore Victor Lam said the solar charging stations have been beneficial, especially during on-campus events that attract large crowds.

“During one of the football games where we went out to the stations, we had chargers and everything, and I felt like a good number of people needed to charge their phones,” Lam said.

Lam said it would be worth finding additional location for students to charge their laptops while studying. 

Ferguson said one of the proposed locations for a new station would be in the West Mall in front of the Union, which would provide solar charging for a larger amount of students.

Biology junior Albert Lee, associate comics editor for The Daily Texan, said not many students use the charging stations but believes having them is an important step to reaching larger energy-conserving goals.

“In the end, it depends on what else we could do with the solar power besides charging,” Lee said. “Some people try to charge their cars, the big devices, and that’s not what these machines can do.”

Although the charging stations have limitations, Ferguson said they have opened other doors in the world of energy-efficient technology simply by their presence on campus. 

“I’m working with a vehicle share system of scooters, similar to the bike share fleet, that wants a charging station,” Ferguson said. “I’ll be working on that this summer, coming up with a station like this one. All this research has been really helpful for future collaborations that Sol Design Lab is doing.”

An earlier version of this article contained several factual errors. It has since been updated.

The University installed a solar-powered charging station outside the Art Building and Museum in June. The station can charge up to six cell phones, laptops or electrical bikes at a time.

Photo Credit: Amy Zhang | Daily Texan Staff

After four years of preparation, the University installed two solar-powered charging stations, one outside the Perry-Castañeda Library and the other outside the Art Building and Museum, in June.

While other campuses such as Stanford University and Hampshire College have introduced similar charging stations, these stations are the first solar-powered, permanent fixtures on the UT campus. Powered through a roof composed of three solar panels, each station can charge up to six cell phones, laptops or electrical bikes at a time, among other electronics. Each station's six batteries allow users to charge their electronics at nighttime and on cloudy days.

The Green Fee Committee, an on-campus organization made up of students, faculty and staff members, decided in 2010 to fund the student proposal for the charging stations as part of its mission to support environmental-conscious campus initiatives. Karen Blaney, program coordinator of the Green Fee Committee, said while the stations may not significantly offset the use of fossil fuel-based energy on campus, they can teach students and community members about solar energy in an interactive way.

“It reminds people that solar energy is an option and that it’s a growing technology,” Blaney said.

During her freshman year, Megan Archer, environmental and biological sciences senior, pushed the original proposal for a solar-power project on campus as part of a class assignment with now-alumni Eric Swanson and Austin Jorn. She said her team originally had proposed solar panel roofs on University buildings, but budgetary restraints stood in the way. They decided to stick with their idea of solar-powered technology because they wanted to see solar energy on campus for the first time.

“We liked the idea of how restrictive [working with solar power] was,” Archer said. “UT didn’t have anything that was solar-powered then.”

Archer collaborated with Beth Ferguson, a UT alumna and founder of Sol Design Lab, a design company that has helped create solar charging stations at other universities, to rent a temporary charging station for the PCL plaza in 2012. During workshops, students in environmental science classes contributed ideas for the final model

During workshops, students in environmental science classes contributed ideas for the final model.

“Solar power is hard to understand, so we wanted the project to be hands-on,” Archer said. “We wanted students to have that hands-on experience with our solar station to create their own and modify [their stations] to meet their needs.”

With funding from the Green Fee Committee and the Science Undergraduate Research Group, the customized charging stations, which cost about $60,000 each, were constructed.

Nicholas Phillips, mechanical engineering senior and president of student group Engineers for a Sustainable World, said he hopes the demand for renewable energy products increases on campus.

“The main hindrance with renewable energy advancements is the lack of awareness of the current technologies that are available,” Phillips said in an email. “By having more projects on campus, we are making sustainability become a staple in our campus and by extensions our lives.”

The final phase of the charging station project will include a customized touch screen device, which will display the station's available stored energy, according to Blaney. Students are working on a mobile feature, such as a website or phone application, that will allow users to check the station's available energy, Blaney said.

The University will celebrate the installation of the charging stations on Sept. 19 outside the Art Building and Museum with a series of solar energy workshops.

Science Scene

Photo Credit: Ploy Buraparate | Daily Texan Staff

Public support for sustainability is fueling the rise of solar energy in both residential and industrial spheres. In an effort to reduce the amount of pollution emitted from oil and gas technologies, people often turn to solar power to harness the energy of the sun. 

UT is home to the largest solar power system in Austin installed at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus in 2011. According to Facilities Services, the system has the potential to produce more than 400,000 kilowatt hours of renewable energy annually. This amount is the equivalent of powering 40 average homes for one year. 

The science behind solar panels supports the claim that solar energy is cleaner than the dominant oil and gas methods that exist today, but a provocative question remains: Has solar energy truly earned the “green” title?

The journey of a photon, a packet of energy, starts at the sun eight minutes and 20 seconds before it reaches Earth. When the photon hits a solar panel, it loosens an electron. The electrons that fall off of each photon in this process bump into each other, pushing their way through the semiconductor material such as a lane of cars in rush hour traffic. The line of electrons, called a direct current, is then used to power homes and businesses.

Look at it this way: If a solar panel is a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, the two pieces of bread are metal or glass and the filling is the semiconductor material, usually made of either silicon or a combination of copper, indium, gallium and selenium (CIGS). Light has to travel through the sandwich to change into energy; without the filling, this process wouldn’t work. 

In general, the more efficient the solar cells, the higher the production cost. This contributes to either a rise in the price of solar technology on one end or a notable amount of waste on the opposite end. Either way, the consumer is losing out. 

The issue of sustainability is a clear concern at the manufacturing level. The extreme amount of heat required to extract silicon from sand and rock, the carbon and methanol required to complete this process and the construction of factories to support solar panel production all contribute to the panels’ carbon footprint. Alternatively, while CIGS materials are not at risk for overuse, the extraction and mining of these materials require the power of oil and gas technologies. As the demand for CIGS materials rises, so too does the demand for unsustainable technologies. 

Currently, solar panels require a significant amount of energy to produce for their 20 to 25 years of output. While the energy debt accumulated in this process is paid back over time — typically one to four years later — this takes away from the energy profit that makes solar technology so attractive. While there isn’t yet a solution for eliminating the need for all non-renewable materials in the production of solar energy, using solar technology to manufacture solar technologies may be a good first step.

The answer to the question of solar energy as a green technology is based on perception. If the question is whether solar energy is cleaner than oil and gas technologies, then the answer is a clean “yes.” If instead we are asking whether solar energy is a completely sustainable solution to our energy demands, then the answer becomes a little more polluted.

The UT Solar Vehicles Team has been working on its solar car, the TexSun, for two years. The car cost $100,000 to build. The team will compete against other college solar car teams nationwide at the International Formula Sun Grand Prix in June.

Photo Credit: Erika Rich | Daily Texan Staff

Two years and thousands of dollars later, the UT Solar Vehicles Team is geared up and ready to race its car, called the TexSun, at the Formula Sun Grand Prix this week.

Beginning Monday and ending Saturday, the Formula Sun Grand Prix features solar cars built by college students nationwide. The winner of the race is not the car that passes the finish line first, but the car that completes the most laps without running out of power.

The race will be held at the Circuit of the Americas racetrack, which hosted the U.S. Formula 1 race last year. There are 12 teams registered to compete.

UT students who worked on the car say building it gave them the opportunity to use the skills they learned in class. Building the car is not cheap, and students faced challenges buying parts for the car.

Overall, students say the spotlight is on renewable energy. If solar energy can be harnessed to make cars run, renewable may eventually go mainstream and be used in aspects of everyday life.

“I like a challenge,” said team member Benton Greene, an aerospace engineering graduate student. “It is fun to design something, to meet some problem and see it actually work and get to compete against other people who designed for the same problem but had different creative ideas for how to make things work.”

The UT Solar Vehicles Team is made up of 50 students who worked on the car’s mechanical, battery, electrical, software, and body and wing teams. The team spent $100,000 constructing the car, said Neda Abdul-Razzak, the team’s president and a mechanical engineering and psychology senior.

“To be able to finish making the car is itself a huge accomplishment,” Abdul-Razzak said. “The main thing is that it is a learning process and a really good way to apply all the engineering theories we learn in the classroom by building an actual car.”

Built low to the ground, made of aluminum and mounted with a solar panel, the UT car weighs slightly less than 200 pounds. Computer systems, including a user interface and battery protection, are also used to conserve energy while the car is not in motion.

Abdul-Razzak said the first four days of the race are dedicated to scrutineering, a process where officials test the car and make sure it is up to safety regulations. The on-track competition takes place the last three days. The teams charge their solar panel twice a day at a specific angle so that the sun directly hits the components of the solar panel that convert solar energy to electricity. The car runs as long as the battery packs last.

The team got a significant donation from a UT alumnus to finish the TexSun. Bobby Epstein, chairman and founding partner of the Circuit of the Americas racetrack in Austin, contributed $50,000 to the UT Solar Vehicles Team.

Team members said the money was used to buy the most expensive and critical components of the car, including the carbon fiber, the solar panel array and motor. 

Budget, unfortunately, often plays a significant role in the outcome of a car, Epstein said. Because of this, he said the solar car challenge has much in common with Formula 1 races because car design, rather than driver, is often the key factor in determining victory. 

“I visited the workshop where the UT car was under construction, and I was impressed by their enthusiasm and depth of understanding,” Epstein said. “I also am certain there is no waste and that resources are maximized.”

Win or lose, at the end of the day the purpose of building the TexSun was to promote research into the use of renewable energy, Greene said.

“This event is a way to get more local people to learn more about solar energy and hopefully consider installing solar panels in their house,” Greene said. “Get the word out for green energy.”

Parking Services Supervisor John Garrett stands in front of solar panels on the Manor Garage roof Tuesday afternoon. The panels were installed in 2011 as part of a study by the Webber Energy Group, a UT mechanical engineering team researching the output of three different types of panels under the same conditions.

Photo Credit: Maria Arrellaga | Daily Texan Staff

While Austin Energy announced that it gave out more solar energy rebates to residents in 2012 than any other year, UT officials said they plan to maintain the campus’ solar panels but don’t plan to build any more.

Since 2004, Austin Energy provides solar photovoltaic rebates to residents who install panels and meet other requirements. Austin Energy spokesman Carlos Cordova said the company is looking to help customers ease into this alternative energy source.

“We want to help spur the solar energy desire in the world but to also bring the costs down,” Cordova said. “Our rebate is the lowest ever, $2 per kilowatt hour, but the desire for solar energy in Austin is at its highest ever, which has helped us achieve the high number of rebates.”

Saying he hopes to provide a clean energy future for students, Jim Walker, the University’s director of sustainability, oversaw the installation of solar paneling on the main campus and at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus in North Austin.

The J.J. Pickle Research Campus has been heralded as having the largest solar power system in Austin, consisting of two solar arrays. One is on top of a newly built carport structure and the other covers more than an acre as a larger ground-mounted system south of the Microelectronics Research Center building. By harnessing the sun’s energy, UT obtains more than 400,000 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year, according to UT Facilities Services. 

However, Walker said representatives of the University have no plans to install any more solar paneling. He said the current energy program, started in 1930, is both efficient and cost effective. Outside of solar energy, Walker said one type of fuel has powered all 400 acres of the University over the last 50 years. 

“Our [main] energy source is a monofuel burning, natural gas producing plant that produces energy that is cheaper and much more efficient than solar energy,” Walker said. “Because solar energy is still quite expensive, making the campus go solar is a harder argument to make.”

Published on January 16, 2013 as "UT elects to not expand solar energy usage".

UT alumna, Beth Ferguson, performs maintenance on the solar charging station outside of the Perry Castaneda Library. Ferguson founded The Sol Design Lab that installed the solar power charging station which can charge any number of electrical devices.

Photo Credit: Gabriella Belzer | Daily Texan Staff

Students on campus can now charge their electrical devices outside using solar energy without the hassle of trying to find an electrical outlet in or around a campus building.

The Sol Design Lab, founded by UT alumna Beth Ferguson, recently installed a solar power charging station in front of Perry-Castañeda Library for students to charge any electrical device, from a laptop to an electric scooter, in a sustainable manner. The idea to install the station was first proposed by three students to the Green Fee Committee, which funds environmental projects on campus, including the solar station.

This is the third solar station in Austin. The other two are located in East Austin and the South Congress area.

Ferguson said she got the idea for the solar station when she purchased an electric scooter as a graduate student.

“I had no place to charge it, and that’s when I had idea that UT could have a solar charging station,” Ferguson said.

In addition to designing the solar station to look like an old-fashioned gas pump station, Ferguson said she wanted the station to be conveniently structured for students.

“There are lots of students who use the outlets in the hallways where there aren’t tables or chairs, so I decided to add chairs and tables to my design along with the bike rack,” Ferguson said.

Environmental science senior Eric Swanson, one of the three students who proposed the solar station’s installation, said he wants to raise awareness about solar energy on campus and how it is great renewable source.

“We already have solar panels on a couple of roofs here on campus, but nothing that students can actually see and interact with,” Swanson said. “We placed it in front of the PCL because that area gets a lot of traffic, and the pump can also be moved around campus for certain events, such as football games.”

Swanson said the proposal also includes a plan to create an interdisciplinary course where students can design and build their own solar powered charging stations.

“It’s still in the works and probably won’t be implemented for a couple more years,” Swanson said. “However, we want to let students know that if this is something that they’re interested in, there is an option to learn more about solar energy and how it affects campus.”

The $5 green fee started in fall 2011 and will continue to be collected with each student’s tuition at the beginning of each semester until summer 2016, said Karen Blaney, sustainability operations assistant manager at the Office of Campus Planning and Facilities Management.

“Here on campus, students do have the power to show the school what their priorities are,” Blaney said. “The Green Fee Program comes into place to do that in the area of sustainability and the environment.”

Pre-nursing freshman Marlene Archila said she likes studying outside, so having somewhere where she can plug in her electrical devices outdoors has its benefits.

“I think you can kill two birds with one stone because [the solar station] is convenient and it’s good for the environment,” Archila said.

Printed on Tuesday, April 3, 2012 as: Texas alumna establishes solar charger