Solar energy project turns campus into living laboratory
Reading about STEM is fine, but for students to truly grasp how science, technology, engineering and math are applied to real-world challenges, they need practice.
At Palm Beach State College’s Palm Beach Gardens campus, students are getting plenty of STEM practice through the construction of a solar-powered micro smart grid. In sync with the nationwide trend to use college campuses as living laboratories, the project provides a unique hands-on experience for students, especially those enrolled in the College’s Electrical Power Technology Associate in Science degree program and the Alternative Energy Engineering Technology College Credit Certificate program, as well as members of PBSC student clubs for energy and engineering.
The students work side-by-side with faculty, the College’s facilities staff and industry professionals, following the model promoted by the Sustainability Education and Economic Development Center. SEED was created by the American Association of Community Colleges and ecoAmerica to encourage such collaboration as a way to provide students with STEM technical skills using the college’s built environment.
Abundant Energy Inc., a Jupiter-based solar energy installation company, is overseeing the construction and taking students under wing throughout the process. The finished grid will consist of 52 solar panels—both pole- and ground-mount systems—all tied to the public utility grid. There will be four different styles of installation and everything will run off of a microinverter system that converts the direct current (DC) generated by each solar module to alternating current (AC) for campus electrical power. The micro smart grid will produce about 50 kilowatt hours every single day, saving the College approximately $150 a month.
Once operational, students will study the energy generated by the grid using real-time data acquisition technology known as SCADA, or supervisory control and data acquisition. SCADA is used by the energy industry worldwide to predict energy output, manage resources and mitigate crises caused by environmental impacts and equipment failures. Students will be able to collect and read all the data points, studying how much power is being produced by every single solar panel at any given moment. It’s a skill set sought by employers needing highly trained energy management system practitioners.
“This project has a very special value proposition for our students,” says Associate Professor Oleg Andric, who oversees PBSC’s Electrical Power Technology program. “Students are able to work on a real-life solar project…reading the schematics, pulling out the parts and putting them together, as they would on a commercial construction site. Then, after the construction is done, students will have a data connection to a true smart grid allowing them to do all kinds of analysis.”
Justin Cristaldi, an installer and service technician for Abundant Energy, has been doing solar installations for about 12 years. With plans to go for his master’s degree in electrical engineering, he sees solar gaining ground. “The efficiency of the panels is getting better, and the cost is coming down, so eventually it would be nice to see it become more of a mainstream energy source. It gets better and better every year.”
Alexandrew Hintzen and Ronny Grullon want a piece of that future. Classmates in the Electrical Power Technology program, both feel they’ve found a career path that can take them in many directions. “This is a great opportunity for me to get my foot in the door,” says Hintzen.
Both are excited about the micro smart grid project and the chance to work with renewable energy. “I was looking for something I could grow into,” Grullon says. Not only is he interested in solar, but also wind energy, hydro and biofuels. “That’s pretty much why I came into the program—to be part of the future.”
The projects are coordinated and supported by the College’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Sustainability, which is charged with making Palm Beach State a leader in green energy education in Florida. “You want your students to acquire skills, not just learn theory,” says Jay Matteson, Ph.D., IEES director. “It’s all about applied, authentic learning—students working in the same types of labs as they would on the job. The micro smart grid advances the skills of our students so they are prepared for the modern 21st century workforce. We’re leading the way in that; we’re not sitting on the sidelines.”