Architecture building adds solar power system

Monica LaBelle

The newly renovated architecture building on the University’s East Bank is equipped to shed light on alternative energy sources.

The University and Xcel Energy installed a 72-panel photovoltaic system – donated by the company – on the roof of the new building last May. The system, which turns the sun’s energy into electricity, will be used to demonstrate practical applications of alternative energy to architecture students.

“Hopefully they’ll stop and think there are alternatives to fossil fuels and there’s more work to be done to improve them,” said Jerome Malmquist, departmental director of Facilities Management.

The 10-year-old system was used at the Science Museum of Minnesota as an educational project that Xcel owned and operated. When the museum moved in 1999, Xcel found a home for the system at the University.

“They knew our college wanted to demonstrate sustainable, clean building structures,” said John Carmody, director of the Center for Sustainable Building Research in the College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. “We seized it because we knew it would be an educational thing.”

Inside each glass-covered panel is a grid of copper wires and silicon. When photons from the sun hit the PV panel, they strike the outermost electrons of the silicon atoms. Free electrons are then pushed through an electrical circuit and the energy created by this movement is the electricity used within the building.

Malmquist said the PV system makes a small difference in the cost of operating the building.

“Photovoltaics do not pay right now,” he said. “When it comes to a house or something here on campus, it’s a drop in the bucket.”

When the sun shines at its brightest, the system is capable of producing a maximum output of 15 kilowatt-hours, which is enough energy to power 10 to 15 homes in the Twin Cities per hour, said Scott Getty, Xcel’s key account manager.

The efficiency of the panels depends on how cloudy the sky is during the day. On an average day, Malmquist estimates the PV system puts out an average of 10 kwh, enough to power approximately 100 fluorescent light fixtures.

The building’s system is one of the largest in Minnesota that Xcel knows of, Bob Gansler, an Xcel technical consultant, said.

With more research to improve the efficiency and reduce production costs of PV systems, their prevalence could grow. Smaller systems are on some watches and calculators.

“We’re just really pleased that we can have these new architects learn about energy conservation,” Gansler said. “They’ll have experience with photovoltaic panels when designing new buildings. In a sense, our efforts are being multiplied.”

Other alternative energy sources Xcel plans to install on campus include fuel cells (electrical generation devices that produce energy from a chemical reaction) and microturbines, which would be used in conjunction with an anaerobic digester.

The digester would convert animal waste into a gas that would fuel the microturbine, which would produce electricity and heat that could be used at the site.

“Dairy research is determining whether this is the best way to deal with their animal waste issue. If it would happen, it would happen next year,” Gansler said.