Analyzing the Alternatives
Data gathering from alternative power pilots is the first and critical step in moving campuses off the grid.
- By Jennifer Grayson
That great sucking sound you hear may be the immense flow of energy required to support 21st century campuses: students, equipped with laptops and assorted handheld devices, expecting ubiquitous connectivity; lecture halls wired with projectors, electronic whiteboards, plasma video walls, and videoconferencing systems; energy-gobbling data centers that perform calculations 24/7 for research projects. Universities and colleges clearly need to reduce their carbon footprints, not just for the sake of the Earth, but for their economic stability as well. So why aren’t schools jumping off the grid completely? Why not just cover every roof on campus in solar panels? Funding, of course, is always an issue, but there’s another reason colleges are taking their time to grow alternative energy programs, and that’s viability.
Technologies like solar, wind, and geothermal are exciting, but relatively new and untested in the context of universities, many of which are large enough to be cities unto themselves. And, like cities, universities count on a reliable, uninterruptible source of power—they can’t take chances with unproven technologies. It’s imperative, too, that precious dollars are wisely invested in the right kind of alternative energy solution for a school’s location. A solar initiative may seem like the obvious undertaking for a school in a sun-soaked region, but without serious investigation, universities may find themselves making expensive and long-term decisions without proper data. That’s why three forward-looking institutions—the University of California-San Diego, The Catholic University of America (DC), and Adelphi University (NY)—are using state-of-the-art monitoring systems and intelligence gathering to pave the way toward widespread adoption of alternative energy power sources.
“What you’re seeing with regard to sustainability and solar is that universities are starting to use technology and IT to capture data so that they can start making good decisions,” says Brian Alexander,director of energy and utilities management at Catholic University, where 1,100 solar panels recently were installed by Standard Solar on four different buildings on campus. The panels went operational in the middle of January, so Alexander doesn’t yet know if they will, in fact, produce their projected 350,000 kilowatt-hours a year—which is less than 1 percent of the total 42 million kwh a year that Catholic uses. Alexander and his team will be gathering and studying the performance data collected in this small pilot,to help determine whether solar is feasible on a larger scale.
Theoretical vs. Actual
Gathering the data is not the hard part:Meters installed in each building measure what the panels are producing, and that information is sent to a third-party monitoring system by Locus Energy in New York, over 200 miles from where the panels are installed on Catholic’s urban Washington, DC, campus. The system monitors the panels’ performance,and automatically alerts personnel at Locus should there be a lack of production or a broken panel.The more painstaking part, says Alexander, is what he and his team do with all that data. On two of the buildings outfitted with solar panels, weather stations capture temperature, wind speed, relative humidity, and solar radiation;that information is time stamped,as is the production data being gathered by Locus Energy. By overlaying the weather data with the performance data,Alexander can analyze the actual performance of the solar panels versus their theoretical performance.
When you buy a panel, he explains,the expected performance is not always what it says on the box, so to speak;weather factors such as wind speed can have a significant effect. “If it’s really hot outside, the thermodynamic cycle is not as efficient as if it’s 60 degrees,”Alexander notes. “Solar cells are actually affected by the temperature. If you’ve got a roof that’s really hot and doesn’t have a lot of wind blowing across it, you’re going to see [less electricity produced].”
By analyzing this kind of information,Alexander says, a school will be more informed about where to install additional solar panels. A flat roof, for example, could be a better choice than one with a parapet, because it allows for wind to cool the panels, helping them perform at maximum efficiency.“Of course, our engineering professors are just salivating over this,” enthuses Alexander. “They’re like, ‘Oh my god,this is exactly the kind of data you want.’”
Predicting Solar Output
UCSD is hoping to take this kind of weather analysis a step further, thanks to a recent contract awarded by the US Department of Energy (DOE) to study how weather disturbances can impact solar panel output. “It’s this issue of when a cloud goes overhead, what happens?”says John Dilliott, energy and utilities manager for the university,explaining the problem of intermittency.
Dilliott says that in a residential area,for example, “if solar is taking care of 100 percent of your house needs, and then it goes away…you have sags and swells and spikes and flickers, and those are what can be damaging to things like your flatscreen TV and your computer.” These types of consistency issues would be devastating at a research university with high-performance computing equipment,or at any college for that matter. They aren’t currently a problem for UCSD,since the school’s 1.2-megawatt solar implementation, for now, is a small portion of its total campus load mix (35 megawatts). The university has plans to install another 2 megawatts of solar by 2011 and perhaps more in the future; but for solar to be adopted on an even wider scale, the problem of intermittency has to be solved.“Somebody needs to develop really good software that can accurately predict what the weather is going to be,”says Josh Haney, a senior project manager with Borrego Solar Systems, the company that installed the solar system on the UCSD campus. “Then you can predict how much solar is going to be produced in the next hour.”
PPAS Bridge the Finance Gap
ALTERNATIVE ENERGY SOLUTIONS may wind up saving cash in the long run, but given the current economy, a lot of schools are struggling with how to fund that initial investment. That’s where power purchase agreements (PPAs) are helping to bridge the gap. Many solar companies are now offering PPAs as a way for schools to install photovoltaic panels with zero up-front cost.
Here’s how it works: A third-party company pays for the installation of the solar system,and then sells the power back to the customer, often at a better price than the school pays for its regular power.
At The Catholic University of America(DC), Standard Solar installed the school’s1,100 solar panels, but Washington GasEnergy Services (WGES) owns them under a20-year PPA. “Because I spread [the solar energy investment] over 240 payments, I’mable to keep fixed costs down,” says Brian Alexander, director of energy and utilities management at Catholic. “Another advantage is, well, what if the solar panels don’t work? All of the risk is with WGES. So if the panels break or don’t perform, we don’t have to pay for it.”
Smith College (MA) has made a strong commitment to take action on climate change, but its recent quarter-million dollar,33-kilowatt solar installation would not have been possible without a PPA, says Dano Weisbord, Smith’s environmental sustainability director. The solar panels were installed by Borrego Solar Systems and financed through a PPA with renewable energy marketer and developer Community Energy. Explains Weisbord, “Like all institutions,Smith has needed to cut budgets during the economic downturn; the PPA provided an opportunity to bring solar to campus without any [up-front] expense and with some small long-term savings.”
He does note one downside to going with a PPA: As the solar customer, the school does not earn carbon credits. Under current carbon accounting protocols, the owner of the solar facility owns and may sell its renewable energy credits to other parties. “If we counted the power created by the solar installation developed through the PPA as a carbon reduction,we would be double counting,” he says.
Thanks to the DOE grant, a team of UCSD researchers, led by Professor Jan Kleissl, is attempting to do just that. The mechanical engineer and his team will be studying how weather impacts the electrical output of the solar panels, and developing software that will be able to predict how electricity generated from photovoltaic panels changes from one point in time to the next. To do this,upward-facing cameras will be affixed to a sampling of the campus’s eight solar installations, allowing researchers to track cloud density and movement.Pyrheliometers, which measure how much of the sun’s energy is hitting the solar panels, will provide correlating information regarding power flow.
Dilliott hopes the study will lead to a solution that includes energy storage;that way, stored energy could be used as a supplement during the peak periods of high energy use during the day. “Then you can anticipate the fall off of [solar energy] production and replace it instantaneously with stored power,” he says, “so you’ll never see those blips.”The university is already in the process of securing an advanced energy-storage solution for its 2.8-megawatt fuel cell powered by waste-flared methane from a local wastewater treatment plant; a similar solution for its expanding solar installation would further increase the usability of the valuable alternative energy generated on campus.
Conservation Is Key
As exciting as the prospect of generating alternative power can be for a college or university, it’s important not to neglect energy conservation, another key purpose of data collection and analysis.“If you don’t have comprehensive building controls in your building, then you should probably look at that first before you really look at renewable energy,” says UCSD’s Dilliott. Adelphi University has heeded that advice, taking full advantage of the school’s TraneSummit automated building management system to maximize its geothermal heating and air-conditioning systems.When you consider the scope of the school’s geothermal deployment—two dormitories and a recently constructed LEED-certified complex that includes a76,000-square-foot recreation center and a state-of-the-art performing arts center—it becomes clear why top-notch building controls are so essential.
“You can imagine the amount of wiring necessary to pick up every thermostatin the complex and feed it back to a network system that will make sense of it,” says Jim Kosloski, executive director of facilities management for the university. He estimates that 5 percent of the total cost of the recent construction,including the geothermal system,went into control systems and IT.
Kosloski acknowledges that’s “quite a price tag, but I think it probably pays for itself within a very, very short time.” The system allows facilities staff to set all the equipment (fans, pumps, air conditioning fixtures, and so forth) on a schedule at night when the buildings are empty, so the spaces are not being heated or cooled at full blast. “It’s all remotely accessible over the campus network,” adds Bob Shipley, associate director of mechanical and electrical systems. “I even have remote access from my home.”
It’s this type of energy-consumption monitoring that Catholic University’s Alexander believes will be key to spending dollars wisely on additional alternative energy installations. That’s why Catholic is undertaking a submetering project for its electric, natural gas, and water usage. The next step is to be able to say, “Now that that I know what my energy and water usage is, I can really have a good hold on my carbon footprint,” he notes. “And then I can set goals on how to reduce that carbon footprint.” In some cases, Alexander points out, it may turn out that energy conservation measures, rather than installing additional solar panels, become the first priority for a particular building.
Where Facilities and IT Meet
So where, you may ask, does the IT department fit into alternative energy initiatives?Certainly, IT is integral in ensuring that performance data gathering runs smoothly: At Catholic University, for instance, it was IT staff who configured the connection from the solar panel installation to its Locus Energy monitoring system; at UCSD, IT was instrumental in connecting all the metering for the solar power weather-impact study via the campus’s Ethernet LAN. Perhaps more important, while facilities and utilities departments have been tasked with uncovering new, green sources of power for the ever-increasing energy demands of the university, IT has been working hard to complement their efforts, putting the backspin on those energy demands through conservation initiatives, most notably in the data center.
A Mighty Wind
DATA GATHERING CAN BE A LONG PROCESS when you’re trying to prove the viability of an alternative energy project. Such is the case with the wind feasibility study that Utah State University has been conducting for the past three years. Ben Berrett, director for facilities planning, design, and construction, and his department are hoping to install a single utility-scale turbine about a half-mile from the central campus. So far, the data for the estimated $4 million project “looks very promising,” says Berrett.
He and his team, along with a hired consultant from Chevron EnergySolutions and assistance from the DOE’s Idaho National Laboratory, have constructed a 15-meter tower with an anemometer at the mouth of nearby Logan Canyon, where a consistent night wind blows as cold air drains out of the canyon through the valley. From the data gathered, they’re confident that a turbine in that location could generate between 1.5 and 2 megawatts of power for the university, no small potatoes when you consider the university’s peak load of 13 megawatts.
Three years of data gathering is painstaking work, but now that wind appears to be a viable source of energy for the campus, the really difficult work begins—and that’s finding a way to pay for it. “Everyone’s on board, provided we have enough funding for it,” says Berrett. As of now, the school has a tentative commitment from the Utah State Energy Office, which receives federal stimulus money for renewable energy projects. Berrett has his fingers crossed, since funding issues have slowed down alternative energy installations on campus in the past: A hydroelectric turbine at First Dam has been consistently generating power for the university for decades, but plans for a second turbine to run during the high-water months have been slowed due to funding issues. Perhaps that’s why schools such as The Catholic University of America (DC) and Smith College (MA) have turned to power purchase agreements (PPAs) as a way to avoid the up-front costs of their alternative energy installations (see “PPAs Bridge the Finance Gap,” ).
At UCSD, for instance, the IT department is spearheading an effort to colocate department servers in the San Diego Supercomputer Center (on the UCSD campus). The center’s energy efficient features (cooling, virtualization, and so forth) contribute to a 15 to 20 percent energy reduction compared to power-sucking rogue servers in departments scattered all over the university. In addition, the installation of two Sun Modular Data centers has cut electricity consumption, thanks to a 40 percent more efficient cooling system (compared to a standard server room). (See “The Green Data Center,” CT June 2009; campustechnology.com/articles/ 2009/06/01/hardware-software.aspx.) And perhaps one day soon, IT and utilities staff will have an excuse to work together on the same green initiative: UCSD is now looking at fuel cells to power its servers directly. Dilliott explains that because renewable energy installations like solar panels and fuel cells produce direct current (DC), a big efficiency drop occurs during the inverter process, since almost everything on campus uses alternating current (AC).
The exception: computers, which use DC.“We’re looking to install a server room that is directly powered from the DC side of the renewable energy,” says Dilliott.This step alone, he says, will increase energy efficiency by 15 to 20 percent.Data as an Educational Tool The data collected to analyze green initiatives creates a unique opportunity to educate students about green technologies and to drum up enthusiasm for future alternative energy projects. For Catholic’s Alexander, this is where the fun part comes in. “I want our students who are eating in the cafeteria not only to see ‘Sports Center’ on ESPN or the Weather Channel, but I want them also to see what the solar output is in these four buildings.” To that effect, Catholic will display statistics in the school’s Pryzbyla University Center, where students congregate and come to eat. On the displays,kilowatt-hours will be translated into more relatable terms (perhaps in pounds of carbon dioxide displaced,offers Alexander).
At UCSD’s Birch Aquarium, an educational display will be installed to show visitors how the solar energy systems across the whole campus are performing at any given moment. As at Catholic, statistics will be displayed in such a way that people can grasp the full weight of the systems’ positive impact on the environment: the amount of energy saved translated into acres of trees planted or cups of coffee brewed.
“One of the main reasons we really like the idea of putting solar in schools, especially colleges, [is that] it provides a great forum for people to see solar working,” says Borrego Solar’s Haney. Dilliott concurs. “The Scripps Institution of Oceanography [at UCSD] really alerted the world to the buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere,” he points out. “So the campus has taken on a walk-the-talk [approach]: How do we provide real solutions to lowering CO2? Part of that is becoming a living laboratory.”