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Solar Compass is Finished!

Cheryl Kabloona
Monday, November 20, 2017
Solar Compass from above. Photo Credit Dr. John Church.

The Solar Compass at Thompson Rivers University (TRU) had its Grand Opening on November 2, a very snowy day in Kamloops. The Solar Compass and the nearby Solar Sidewalk are flagship projects, the first of this kind in Canada. Project lead Dr. Michael Mehta was joined by our major partners, TRU and Solar Earth Technologies (SET), along with other local partners and many of the 30-plus members of the project team.

The Solar Compass shows that we can embed energy generation into everyday things, like the pavement that we walk on.  For Dr. Mehta, “These arrays put solar technologies front and centre in highly visible locations where thousands of people will walk over them each year. As a result, this should help usher in a new era where solar becomes demystified and embraced as a viable and aesthetically pleasing option for generating renewable energy.

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While the installation is done, this is only the beginning. There will be much to learn from this first-of-its-kind technology. The panels themselves are durable with a textured surface to minimize slipping, yet they also need to be transparent to sunlight. We are hopeful that they will generate as much energy as expected, given obvious challenges such as the panels being flat on the pavement (as opposed to being oriented to the south,) and various shadows of trees and people moving across the panels throughout the day.  Snow, water and dirt can also affect their efficiency.  All of this will be tracked and studied by faculty, students and SET to see if the concept is worth pursuing and what kinds of improvements can be made.



This multidisciplinary project had its beginning back in 2015 when Mehta and Dr. Jason Wang of SET recognized the potential for a partnership between SET and TRU.  SET decided it could do its first pilot of the panels in an environment that has lots of sunshine, temperature extremes and the support of a university. For TRU, the project greatly enhances the university’s mission to be technologically advanced and is an inspiration for its students and for other education hubs and institutions throughout Canada and abroad.

With a team of faculty, staff, students, project partners and other volunteers, Mehta developed an application and eventually received a grant of $30,000 from TRU’s Sustainability Grant Program.  SET committed to donating panels to the project.



Our technical people shared their expertise in the funding application and all through the design and installation of this revolutionary project.  Ben Giudici, an electrical engineer with Riverside Energy Systems, made sure these unique solar modules could be properly integrated with conventional solar equipment to safely deliver electricity into the campus electrical system.  He is also securing Net-Metering approvals from BC Hydro to allow parallel operation of the Solar Compass with the electrical grid.   As Giudici said with a smile, “Nothing about this project has been routine.”  

Brock Nanson of Certes Applied and Natural Sciences Ltd. contributed his engineering knowledge to ensure that foundation, drainage and materials would work out. He was aided by Dr. James Gu of TRU in this role. Amie Schellenberg (TRU faculty member) and her crew did the electrical installation and much more.  All of these professional people contributed many hours of pro bono work.

 

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Amie Schellenberg, her daughter and Dr. Mehta at the Grand Opening.

Photo credit James Gordon.

 

The BC Sustainable Energy Association (BCSEA) became the project’s community partner.  Cheryl Kabloona of the BCSEA’s Kamloops Chapter took on much of the project’s social media and other communications.  With support from the BCSEA head office, thousands throughout British Columbia have learned about the project.



See the Solar Compass blog for many others who have contributed to the Solar Compass: http://solarcompass.blogspot.ca/2017/11/thank-you-to-all-our-donors-volu....  We also give a big thank you to Dr. Mehta, the mastermind who guided this project through to completion with his technical knowledge and dedication to teaching and research.

 

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With solar pathways module, (L to R) Oliver Zimmermann, Greg Lambertus,

Ben Giudici and Jason Wang.  Photo credit Daniela Ginta.

 

There were many challenges over the two years.  We were delayed while SET developed a better, second-generation solar module.  It took time to get third-party certification and BC Hydro’s confirmation that the product met interconnection requirements.  We struggled with different ways to attach the panels to the walking surface. But no one gave up.



By the summer of 2017 the team realized that it would be smart to do a small-scale prototype to test the installation methodology.  This resulted in the Solar Sidewalk, 16 modules in the sidewalk by the university’s daycare centre.  That went well and the installation of the main Solar Compass followed at its location in front of the Arts and Education Building.  Trades students and other volunteers did much of the work.  The 62 module array was completed in October and it is rated at 4.96 kW DC.  Both of these will be connected into the BC Hydro electricity grid after the final electrical inspection.  Signs will soon be in place to tell visitors about the Solar Sidewalk and Solar Compass.



We’re very grateful to the many people who contributed their time and energy to make the Solar Compass a reality.  This innovative project has come to life thanks to a deep-set belief in a better, sustainable future and a multi-disciplinary approach which involved collaboration, research and experimentation, and, of course, pro bono and volunteer effort over many months.  It looks like we’ve made history together!