Cal Poly’s Solar Farm Fosters Hands-On Engineering

Preach what you teach, and Cal Poly is doing that with its recently established 18.5-acre solar farm. The farm will save the university money, reduce emissions, but most importantly, be a learning ground for students looking to experiment with solar and renewable technology.
The farm, located on the campus, has 16,000 solar panels, with a capacity of 4.5 megawatts. The farm will generate more than 11 million kWh a year, which the university says will meet 25 percent of its electricity needs.
The solar panels will follow the path of the sun to maximize efficiency, which produces about 30 percent more energy than a stationary system. In all, Cal Poly estimates it will save about $20 million over ten years.
“The university will continue to receive the balance of its electrical needs via the power grid,” said Matt Lazier, a university spokesman.
The solar farm is also a chance for Cal Poly to put its “Learning by Doing” program to action. Sustainability students will be able to jump outside the classroom and put theory to practical use.
Engineering students will be able to conduct hands-on experiments with the panels, and also measure solar panel performance and output at different times of the day. Sheep grazing will help students of the animal science program study research vegetation management on solar farms. Cal Poly will also integrate the study of photovoltaics into some science and engineering courses.
California has been a hotspot for solar energy. Apple last year opened up a 175-acre campus that is powered by 17 megawatts of rooftop solar panels. In 2016, 658 operating solar power plants with a capacity of about 9,865 megawatts were in California, according to statistics from the California Energy Commission. Solar panels and solar thermal power plants produced 9.98 percent of the state’s electricity, or about 19,783 gigawatt-hours of energy.
The solar farm at Cal Poly was financed via a power-purchase agreement with REC Solar, a subsidiary of Duke Energy Renewables, so everything could be installed with no money down. The deal allows Cal Poly to purchase energy at a lower rate from REC Solar, which will also maintain the site. REC Solar is playing a key role in Cal Poly’s curriculum development.
Cal Poly students have already built a 5kW array on campus, but that’s more for academic purposes. The university is also looking for opportunities in wind energy across its 6,000-acre campus, according to the university’s 2016 annual sustainability report. The university is aiming for carbon neutrality by 2050.
Agam Shah is an associate editor at Mechanical Engineering magazine.
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