Here comes the sun

Solar panels at the J. J. Pickle Research Campus.
Solar panels at the J. J. Pickle Research Campus. Photo: Marsha Miller

A ceremony held June 2 celebrated the completion of the largest solar power system at one location in the city of Austin. Dr. Pat Clubb, vice president for University Operations, flipped an oversized switch to represent the start-up of the system, accompanied by cheers from the guests and strains of the Beatles hit, "Here Comes the Sun."

At the J. J. Pickle Research Campus (PRC) in north Austin, the system consists of two solar arrays. One is incorporated on top of a newly built carport structure alongside the Bureau of Economic Geology administration building. The other, nearly 10 times larger and covering more than an acre, is a ground-mounted system south of the Microelectronics and Engineering Research Center building.

According to Juan Nuñez, associate director for Facilities Services at PRC, the system provides more than 400,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year, equivalent to powering 40 average area homes. Monitors in three locations at PRC display in real time the energy generated by the system and amount of greenhouse gas emissions reduced.

"By offsetting a portion of the power currently being used at PRC, the system saves 263 tons of carbon dioxide per year from being emitted into the atmosphere -- savings comparable to planting more than 9,000 trees or taking 58 cars off Austin's streets," he explained.

Solar panels at the PRC
The solar power system at PRC provides more than 400,000 kilowatt hours of electricity per year. Photo: Constance Meyer

At the ceremony, Clubb announced that the solar energy system will be a teaching tool as well as a means of producing energy and encouraging conservation.

"Our friends in the Cockrell School of Engineering will make this technology a means of education through the UTeachEngineering program," she said. "With UTeachEngineering as a partner, the PRC solar project is poised to serve as a critical resource on solar power for secondary science, technology, engineering, and mathematics students and teachers."

According to Vincent Torres, associate director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Resources in the Cockrell School of Engineering and facilities coordinator of the UTeachEngineering program, high school students will tour the solar array to learn about the benefits of solar power as well as possible career paths. He noted that engineering students in the Cockrell School can also use data collected from the system to work toward their capstone projects.

"Projects like this one allow the university to serve as a 'living laboratory,'" Clubb said, adding that the system is "another step in expanding the university's impact on future generations."

The system was made possible by a $1.6 million grant from the State Energy Conservation Office (SECO) in 2010, which covered 80 percent of the costs. The university funded the remaining 20 percent. The SECO grants allotted federal stimulus dollars to encourage development of renewable energy, energy conservation projects and energy education.

Project contractor Jamail and Smith Construction and subcontractor Texas Solar Power Company, both of Austin, constructed the solar power system and installed the monitors. The project enabled these companies and another subcontractor to retain 36 jobs and create three new ones.