Rutgers hosts ‘Energy Café’ on solar power


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Photo by Yingjie Hu |

Dunbar Birnie, professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, discusses new solar facilities yesterday at the “Energy Café” lecture. 


Two new solar facilities will power more than 4,000 homes soon, said PSE&> project engineer Andrew Chad Watson.

Watson, a Rutgers alumnus, gave a presentation about the company’s new solar farm facilities yesterday at the “Energy Café” on Busch Campus,  hosted by the Rutgers Energy Institute.

Dunbar Birnie, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, also spoke about storm-resistant systems at the café.

The facilities are being built as an extended part of PSE&>’s “Solar 4 All Program,” which currently provides roughly 80 megawatts of solar energy, he said. Half of this energy comes from leased sites or owned property. The other 40 megawatts comes from solar panels attached to telephone or light poles.

Twenty-four centralized solar projects are currently in service, he said. The two new ones will open in February of next year.

The extension of the program is expected to provide another 42 megawatts of power through four facilities, including the two currently being built. These two facilities will supply 10 megawatts of alternating current each.

“We estimate 10 megawatts will power roughly 2,000 homes,” Birnie said.

Many of the facilities built for this program are on closed landfills or brownfields, Watson said.

A brownfield is land formerly used in industry and temporarily unusable due to pollution or hazardous material contamination, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s website.

The program currently provides power to more than 20,000 New Jersey homes. Building on these properties required various permits and licenses from state and local government agencies.

Paul Morrison, project manager for PSE&> Utility, said all power generated by the facilities will first go to the distribution network. The current will go to homes from the grid, which also contains power supplied from coal, fossil fuel and nuclear sources.

PSE&> first analyzed the properties to determine whether a facility could successfully be built, Watson said.

Among other criteria, PSE&> looks at how much the land settles and how well storm water drains. Any fixable issues, such as an uneven surface, are taken care of.

The solar panels, which have an efficiency of 15 percent, work by first absorbing photons from the sun. Silicon, a semi-conductive material, is embedded with impurities and used to receive these elementary particles.

Valence electrons are released from the silicon by the photons and are then channeled through the solar cells.

“Once we channel those electrons, those moving electrons become a current,” Watson said.

An inverter is then used to convert the direct current into an alternating current, which is sent to the distribution grid, he said.

Power management is through the inverter, which manages the battery and will charge or discharge it, Birnie said.

Storing solar power comes with its own issues. A battery’s storage capacity and how much sunlight is actually available on any given day are both important to storing energy for emergencies and nighttime.

The amount of sunlight that can be absorbed by a panel depends on what season it is, what the weather is like and what city the panel is in, Birnie said. Different cities have different weather patterns and so differ in sunlight availability.

The length of a night is also different from place to place. The amount of power that can be stored depends on how large the battery is.

Using solar batteries when the power goes out is a viable option for dealing with storms. However, researchers need to work out few issues first.

Writing an algorithm to determine how much power and how much can be stored is necessary, Birnie said. Analyzing databases on sunlight availability is part of this solution.

System optimization must also continue. The technology can be improved in terms of cost and effectiveness.

PSE&> distributes the power through its network, supplementing the solar energy with energy from other sources without storing it, Watson said. This ensures customers do not notice any interruptions caused by the solar cells not performing properly.


Nikhilesh De

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