The New Solar System: Rowan Researchers Help Harness PV Energy
Mankind’s overdependence on carbon-based fuels has caused an almost perfect storm of bad news – rising global temperatures and falling fuel supplies – but research through Rowan’s College of Engineering could have an impact on both.
Research in renewable energy, led in part by work at the S.J. Technology Park at Rowan University into photovoltaics, is helping make solar-arrays more cost effective and efficient.
“We’re going to run out of coal and oil sooner or later and there has to be an alternative way to generate electricity,” said Ulrich K.W. Schwabe, a second-year graduate student at the CoE. “Photovoltaics are probably the cleanest way of doing so. It’s going to be a big part of the world to come.”
Schwabe, whose graduate work focuses on PV engineering and system designs, said Rowan research into photovoltaics will ultimately help make the energy source more efficient and affordable.
Under the direction of Rowan engineering professor Peter Jansson, Schwabe and about a dozen undergraduate students test, modify and tweak PV system components at the Center for Sustainable Design in the Tech Park. In addition to office space, their lab includes two photovoltaic systems on the building’s roof.
One of the rooftop systems was designed by Rowan students and funded by Kaneka, a Japan-based leader in the production of amorphous photovoltaic modules, the other was included in the design of the Samuel H. Jones Innovation Center to meet LEED silver certification.
In addition to the PV systems at the Tech Park, another was designed by Rowan students and installed on the Team House roof while a third was designed by and donated by graduating students for Rowan’s new football stadium.
Schwabe believes PV research is even more crucial now that the associated costs are dropping, in order to finally cross the threshold of making it a main contender in energy generation.
And, while PV is not yet economical enough without government subsidies to replace coal and nuclear power, he believes it can go a long way to augmenting peak supply needs.
“In remote situations, PV has been effective for several years. If, for example, you have a remote location where you don’t have the ability to build one of the standard plants, after the initial investment (of a PV system) you can generate electricity for free for decades to come,” he said. “You might have to replace a module or inverter or another piece of equipment at some point but there’s no fuel involved. It will do what you need it to do.”
In addition to the PV work they’ve done around campus, Rowan students and faculty have consulted on or designed systems for a number of external organizations including Kaneka, Ray Angelini Inc., SunTechnics (now Conergy), the Department of Military & Veteran’s Affairs, the city of Ocean City, New Jersey, and the Mount Laurel Municipal Utilities Authority.
Not Just Solar
Rowan research into renewable energy is not limited to PV. In recent years students and faculty have jumped headlong into biofuel research (particularly in the creation of bacteria that convert starchy organisms into energy) as well as into wind technology.
Rowan researchers are presently conducting wind analyses in Sea Girt where anemometer readings could determine the plausibility of placing giant wind turbines along the Jersey Shore.
Dr. Will Riddell, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, believes renewable energy research is a field that must involve all four major engineering disciplines – civil and environmental, chemical, mechanical, and electrical/computer.
“In the past, safety and cost were the two main areas engineers were concerned with,” Dr. Riddell said. “In the future, sustainability will be right up there with cost and safety.”
He said New Jersey is among the nation’s leaders in its call for sustainable energy production – 20 percent of the total consumed by 2020 – with wind and solar leading the charge.
To help meet that goal, as well as to satisfy market and global needs and demands, the Rowan Engineering curricula place great emphasis on renewable energy, from freshmen year through the graduate program, Dr. Riddell said.
“Certain courses are being developed specifically in sustainability topics but a large number have already adopted sustainability-related topics,” Dr. Riddell said. “In my materials science class this year, where historically I’ve talked about the behavior of materials, I’m going to be talking about the environmental impact of using materials.”
Dr. Riddell said today’s students have an almost activist interest in helping the environment and saving the planet. At the same time, they have a vested interest in gainful employment and both needs can be met in the field of sustainability.
“Every major company is hiring people specifically to make their operations sustainable,” Dr. Riddell said. “Many are interested in wind off the coast of New Jersey. They’re going to need a lot of people with the design work but also with the operations.”
Senior Kevin Bellomo-Whitten said he sought a degree in engineering specifically to help change the planet and loves the idea that he’ll be able to earn a living doing so.
He said Prof. Jansson, with whom he studied “Sustainable Design in Engineering” in London this past summer, was of particular help.
“I knew I wanted to give back to the community but it was a little sketchy how I would do so in the beginning,” said Bellomo-Whitten, 21, of Cape May.
He said undergraduate research into photovoltaics, which has included how shading and other factors hinder or help solar cell efficiency, made career plans much clearer.
“There are jobs out there,” he said. “And it really is exiting to see how I can give back to the community.”