Every sunny day, 14 of them are camped out on the roof of the Student Union at Wright State University, soaking up rays. But they’re not students—they’re solar panels.
The solar array, installed earlier this year, helps heat the indoor swimming pool and serves as a testament to the university’s commitment to renewable energy.
John Howard, manager of the university’s physical plant, is thrilled with the move.
“It’s a teaching tool that provides some energy,” Howard said. “It brings about a certain awareness in all of us. It’s hard not to talk about.”
Jim Nargang, director of capital planning for the Ohio Board of Regents, said Wright State is among only several Ohio universities starting to get involved in solar power.
Some schools are more involved than others.
The University of Toledo has become a national leader in solar energy research and has committed an entire campus to alternative power, including solar arrays. Other Ohio schools that have installed solar panels include Ohio University, Bowling Green State University, Oberlin College, Hocking College, and Owens Community College.
Some schools are still in the thinking-about-it stage.
“Campuses are evaluating it from the perspective of their programs and how solar power could possibly fit into their future plans of providing energy to their campus,” Nargang said.
Wright State decided to dive in, investing about $140,000 in its solar array.
The flat-plate solar collectors are positioned strategically to take full advantage of the sun. They supply about 20 percent of the energy required to heat the swimming pool.
The two racks of solar panels make up what’s called a passive heating system. That means it directly converts the sun’s energy into heat.
As glycol, an antifreeze, circulates through the coils inside the panels like blood through capillaries, it absorbs the heat of the sun. The sun-heated glycol is then pumped through insulated pipes down through the building to a utility room next to the pool.
Once it arrives there, a heat exchanger absorbs the heat and transfers it to the pool water. The glycol is then pumped back to the solar panels. It all takes place in a continuous loop.
The solar heat cannot be stored and is always used first before additional required heat from the burning of natural gas is used.
“Even though the contribution isn’t tremendous, it still gives us the maximum benefit,” Howard said of the solar heat.
Unlike coal-burning power plants, the solar units emit no pollution and make no sound. And they require little maintenance.
Bob Davis, co-director of the Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization, based at the University of Toledo, is not sure why more schools don’t embrace solar power, especially the passive variety.
“It makes a lot of sense commercially,” Davis said. “People don’t think we get a lot of sun here in Ohio, but we do.”
Howard said the solar heating system, in its own small way, reduces the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, serves to educate students about solar heating, and may inspire some to pursue careers related to renewable fuels or to improve the technology.
And he said the use of solar power could spread on campus. There have been discussions about the possibility of installing additional systems on the roof of another building and in a parking lot.
With his bushy white moustache, Howard is a familiar figure on campus. He has been working on energy issues for more than 20 years at Wright State, but the solar-heating system has injected him with a new enthusiasm.
“It’s very, very exciting. It kind of helps renew yourself a little bit in your job,” Howard said. “As an energy person, you knew it was out there, but you never expected to see it develop because of the feasibility. And then right out of the blue, here it is.”