Making an Impact with Renewable Energy Today

2013-02-10T00:00:00Z Making an Impact with Renewable Energy Today
February 10, 2013 12:00 am

While the wind blows and the sun shines every day, fossil fuels form deep below the earth’s surface from the buried remains of plants and animals that lived millions of years ago.

The three main fossil fuels - coal, petroleum and natural gas - have played an important role in the US energy mix for more than 100 years because of their abundance, reliability and low cost compared to other energy forms. In the latest published findings, the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) reports that at least 81% of the country’s energy consumption comes from these primary fuel sources, while renewable energy accounts for about 9% (nonrenewable nuclear electric power adds another 8%).

Access to these domestic resources helps the US meet about 80% of its own energy needs, with the rest supplied primarily by imported petroleum.

As US companies continue to make the necessary investments to meet tightening environmental regulations, and the country continues to make strides toward becoming more energy independent, there continues to be growing interest in developing and advancing the energy industry’s future.

With the goal of teaching students technical skills and positive workplace attitudes, Porter County Career and Technical Center (PCCTC) programs give high school juniors and seniors from Porter County and Hobart a head start on a post-secondary degree and a well-paying profession. Classroom and laboratory experience mirror the real world with plenty of hands-on learning opportunities.

“Students study what they are interested in here,” PCCTC Principal/Director Jon Groth said. “All of our teachers have a great variety of technical skills. If you were to put them all together, I am confident they could solve just about any problem. Our goal is to give students an inside look at how things get done. For example, when asked to produce a 30 second public service announcement, they think it’s a fairly simple process at first. Then, once they get started, students quickly discover that their assignment requires the very same components as a major production.”

When the generation of renewable energy was added to the PCCTC programs, the goal was to mimic what was going on in other parts of the country on a smaller scale. Of the renewable energy being consumed in our country, 13% of it came from wind and 1% from solar.

A joint effort of the PCCTC Modern Machining and Electronics programs in partnership with the Valparaiso Redevelopment Commission, Valparaiso Community Schools, NIPSCO and Midwest Wind and Solar, the project was divided into two phases with ongoing research components.

First, the goal was to harness wind and solar power that would be stored in batteries used to power a display case in the building.

“We started out with one wind generator and two solar collectors (photovoltaic panels),” Groth explained. “Students are involved every step of the way, building, installing and maintaining all the equipment. David Kenning, chair of our Electronics and Computer Technology department, and Greg Carmack, chair of Modern Machinery Technology, are instrumental in organizing this student effort.”

From there, students rewired the main hallway lights and added special motion-sensor lighting that is now also powered by the wind generator and a total of eight solar collectors, reducing the building’s monthly energy bill by more than 10%.

“Students throughout the school are learning a great deal about how alternative energy sources work, and why they are so important,” Groth said. “One recent example that really hit home with them was the fact that we still had lights in our hallways during Valparaiso’s city-wide blackout last December.”

Plus, those who are involved with program firsthand, including current and former students, have helped shape it.

“Right now we’re collecting data from two of the solar collectors – one is attached to a robot the student’s built to follow the sun in the sky, while the other is mounted on a static incline,” he added. “Because both the wind generator and solar collectors are designed for residential use, our students assisted the city of Valparaiso when it came to drafting building codes for installing them. They also had to figure out how they were going to safely install everything without drilling any holes in the roof. New roofs are very expensive.”

The next project for this phase focuses on the wind generators.

“The first wind generator is a horizontal axis design, like the ones you see on I-65 but significantly smaller,” Groth said. “The students are currently building one that has a vertical axis, and they are also going to look at different blade designs. We’ve been tracking how things are going with the first one – how wind speeds affect energy production - so we already have some data to compare.”

Along with the eight solar collectors that generate power for battery storage, PCCTC installed a 32-panel array during the first semester of this year. These solar collectors started producing energy in January and generate 7.7 KwH of power, which is roughly enough for two average size homes.

“This group of solar collectors feeds power back to NIPSCO through the Feed-In-Tariff program and generates income for the school corporation,” Groth explained. “Through software from the manufacturer, we are able to track the output of each individual panel by day, over a year and the lifetime. When it snowed the other day, production was definitely way down until we climbed up on the roof to remove it.”

During the recent ribbon cutting ceremony for the latest addition to the PCCTC roof, NIPSCO President Kathleen O’Leary was impressed by how much the students have accomplished.

“I’m just so impressed by their eagerness to learn, and how many problems they have solved along the way,” she said. “This is the kind of workforce we need for the future.”

Almost on cue, a former student who returned to PCCTC for the ceremony was prepared with resume in hand when Groth introduced him to O’Leary.

“I had no idea he was going to do that,” Groth added. “But, honestly, when would he ever have another chance like that?”

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