Power Player

Story by James Savage and photos by Doug Dugas for the Fall 2018 issue of La Louisiane, The Magazine of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

At dawn, the 4,200 solar panels that inhabit six acres of University Research Park begin another workday. The black rectangles – standing in martial rows like a battalion awaiting a command – ingest the first rays and, with nary a hum, start to make electrical power.

By day’s end, as the western horizon envelops the sun, they’ll have produced up to 1.1 megawatts, enough to power 220 homes, or, in UL Lafayette’s case, much of the Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns athletic complex.

The solar panels are the public faces of the Photovoltaic Applied Research and Testing Laboratory that went live in June.

The lab’s mission control is three miles from University Research Park, in Rougeou Hall on campus. A wall-mounted screen enables real-time monitoring of the field’s power production. In adjacent rooms, high-tech equipment sits ready to evaluate whether solar panels can withstand Louisiana’s sultry climate.

The data the lab collects, analyzes and releases will buttress a slowly evolving conversation about solar energy’s place in the state’s energy landscape.

Renewable energies provided 4 percent of Louisiana’s power last year. Biomass energies, which come from plant and animal material, and hydroelectric power accounted for much of the total. Solar was just a sliver. Fossil fuels such as natural gas produce 60 percent of the state’s electrical power.

Student Cy Kipp adjusts a solar panel inside the PART Lab’s flash tester, or artificial sun.

One of the PART Lab’s major objectives is empowering students to think more broadly about where energy traditionally has – and where it potentially can – come from.

UL Lafayette is the only Louisiana university, and one of a handful nationally, that can examine solar technology outside and in a controlled, indoor laboratory space, said Dr. Terrence Chambers. He’s a mechanical engineering professor and director of the University’s Energy Efficiency and Sustainable Energy Center who oversaw the lab’s development.

As planning began for the lab, Chambers visited facilities he terms “the big boys” – the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, Arizona State University, and the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, among others. He asked staff at each the same two questions: “What do you do, and how do you do it?”

Sandia National Laboratories provided Chambers with a list of five pieces of essential solar testing equipment. That’s when luck intervened. A contact told Chambers a research firm was shutting down and selling its equipment; the liquidation sale included the five pieces on the Sandia list, at a fraction of what they would cost new.

“We got them all,” Chambers said, his satisfaction still evident.

A light-soaking chamber bombards panels with intensified artificial sunlight that inflicts years of degradation in a few weeks. Another instrument, called a multi-tracer, controls how power is distributed through a module. A tilt table permits testing a panel at any angle in relation to the sun.

The centerpieces of the collection are a thermographic camera and a flash tester.

The thermographic camera is 21 feet long. A solar panel is placed in a steel frame carriage, which can be moved toward or away from the lens along tracks. That lets researchers photograph an entire panel in search of defects and evidence of degradation.

“We take a solar module, we apply power to it, and it will glow,” Chambers explained. “The glowing is not visible to the human eye, but it is visible to a thermal camera.” Hues of yellow, orange and red appear on a nearby computer screen and indicate hot spots that have retained heat; less-vibrant colors pinpoint areas that aren’t functioning.

Dr. Terrence Chambers and graduate student Mounirat Mahmoud examine the thermal camera.

The flash tester is a black cabinet containing 140 LED lights that’s sometimes called an artificial sun. Solar panels are mounted on the inside of the cabinet’s door. When the door is closed, the LED lights replicate the sun’s rays in a controlled setting so researchers can gauge a panel’s longevity without worrying about clouds and other obstructions.

“We are going to every year remove a sample of modules from the field, bring them to the lab and very accurately characterize how they are performing. And then we do it a year later, and then a year later, and we’ll see how they’ve degraded.”

Analyses the UL Lafayette lab complete will be shared online, so consumers can use the information to assess solar energy’s feasibility, said graduate student Deepakjain Veerendrakumar. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in systems engineering and helped construct testing equipment as it arrived, in pieces, at the University.

There’s also potential for collaboration with national firms to compare how solar panels respond to environments that aren’t as hot and humid as Louisiana. Endurance is part of solar’s appeal, Veerendrakumar said.

“People think that solar is just cool stuff and that it’s still in the beginning stages. We need to show people it’s not only cool. It’s also cost-effective compared to other sources of energy.”

The power produced at the solar facility will electrify University-owned property and buildings from Johnston Street to West Congress, and from Coliseum Road to Bertrand Drive. The area includes Cajun Field, M.L “Tigue” Moore Field at Russo Park, Lamson Park, Bourgeois Hall, Blackham Coliseum and the Ira S. Nelson Horticulture Center.

An underground power line carries current to a substation near the intersection of Johnston Street and Cajundome Boulevard, over a mile away.

The panels produce 1.1 megawatts; athletic facilities and other buildings require 1.2 megawatts of power, so the solar panels rarely will produce more than is expended. Also, without a battery system to store the unlikely excess, the panels will provide power only during daytime hours.

On sunny days during a typical semester, the PART Lab will produce about 10 percent of the 10 megawatts of power the University uses daily. In a year, the solar facility will make about 3 percent of the University’s energy and save UL Lafayette $100,000 on its electric bill.

The PART Lab’s 1.1 megawatts partially powers the red-shaded areas of the University’s athletic complex and other adjacent spots.

The lab is also moving UL Lafayette toward an objective of its Sustainability Strategic Plan, which calls for a decrease in campus energy use by 2021 as well as an increase in available renewable energy sources.

Gretchen Lacombe Vanicor, the University’s director of sustainability, said the PART Lab “reduces our emissions associated with purchasing electricity generated from nonrenewable sources, namely coal. This is critical to achieving our goal to cultivate a healthier, more resilient campus community.”

There are two types of solar energy technology: photovoltaic, which generates electricity directly from solar power, and solar thermal, which uses heated water as a go-between.

Four years ago, UL Lafayette invested in solar thermal. With the opening of the PART Lab to study photovoltaic technology, the University has all its solar bases covered.

The Cleco Alternative Energy Center, a partnership between UL Lafayette and Cleco, a power company that serves south and central Louisiana, opened in 2014. Equipment at the facility turns rice hulls, switchgrass, sweet potatoes and similar agricultural products into energy. Other systems convert animal and farm waste.

The center, like its counterpart in Lafayette, provides testing and lab space. But its most notable feature is two banks of mirrored, parabolic solar troughs that gradually track the sun’s path, and use the harnessed sunlight to heat water held in tubes beneath the panels. Steam that’s produced powers a turbine that generates electricity.

The panels, part of the Solar Thermal Applied Research and Testing Lab, are responsible for more than electricity. They also laid the groundwork for the PART Lab, said Dr. Mark Zappi, dean of the University’s College of Engineering.

Not long after the Crowley facility became operational, Louisiana Generating LLC and its parent company, NRG Energy Inc., approached the University with an offer.

NRG Energy proposed an investment of $4 million for a rooftop system of solar panels, similar to smaller residential installations, but enough to provide 1.1 megawatts of power. They’d also invest $1 million through the UL Lafayette Foundation for the maintenance of the system for 25 years.

“We want the University to be a living laboratory,” Chambers explained. “We wanted this to be a way to make power for the University. We wanted this to be an educational facility. We wanted it to be a research facility. We wanted it to be accessible to our students and to the public. To make that possible, we had to put it on the ground and not on the roofs.”

The University countered: Would NRG consider funding a photovoltaic research and testing laboratory?

On a cloudless spring day, Chambers stood at the heart of the company’s answer. “This is the result,” he said, with a grin. “This will allow us to do education, research, outreach, workforce development and have a much bigger public impact than simply putting solar panels on the roof.”

The University initially considered five locations for the lab, but Chambers said the choice came down to an intuitive maxim: “Let’s do research in the research park. And here we are.”

A brick and mortar structure with classroom space that could accommodate the testing equipment now housed in Rougeou Hall is on Chambers’ wish list. It would also serve as a visitor center for tour groups to learn about sustainable energies, he said.

The mechanical engineering professor has already used the field as an open-air classroom. In late spring, before the facility went live in June, he took students in his graduate-level sustainable energies course to the research park.

“We are studying solar energy right now,” Chambers said before the visit. “We are actually in the section of the book for photovoltaic power. This is perfect. I can bring my class out there. We can walk through the solar field, and I can say, ‘This is an inverter. This is a monocrystalline panel. This is polycrystalline panel. This is the thin film module. This is how this whole thing works.’ That’s the real benefit.”

Main photo: Some 4,200 solar panels are the public face of the University's Photovoltaic Applied Research and Testing Laboratory. Equipment that tests the panels' resiliency and speeds their degradation are a mile away on campus, in Rougeau Hall.


University of Louisiana at Lafayette/Doug Dugas

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