Imagine a world where the very roads you drive on power your home, where the sides of buildings produce clean, endless electricity. Better yet imagine a world where young adults, those bright minds faced with the great responsibility of shaping the future, are inspired to think of new ways to interweave renewable energy technology with everyday life. This is the vision of Dr. Michael Mehta, who leads Thompson Rivers University’s Solar Compass project.
Dr. Mehta believes that universities have fallen behind in one of their most important duties – inspiration. Universities across Canada are failing to inspire the next generation of budding entrepreneurs, architects, engineers, scientists and thinkers to consider the true potential of renewable energy sources, their many applications and the world that could flourish with clean, even free, renewable energy. Dr. Mehta believes that universities should be incubators for innovation and inspiration that encourage students to explore new ideas and apply creativity and imagination to existing technologies. In doing so, such creativity will allow them to build a world they want to live in with the development of new technology.
To remedy this, he developed a project that would be a true convergence of technology, art and education, capable of inspiring generation after generation of students to think outside the box. Thus the Solar Compass was born. Dozens of solar panels, sandwiched between thick glass and arranged in a circle, will be located in front of TRU’s Arts and Education Building.
Solar Earth Technologies Ltd. is designing and supplying the solar roadway panels, and Riverside Energy Systems will install the wiring, inverters and optimizers, and monitoring equipment that will not only allow the compass to power the computers within the Arts and Education Building, but produce a live-feed of the electricity being generated, allowing students and others to see and monitor first-hand the capabilities of this renewable energy technology.
Such an ambitious, nuanced project is not without its challenges however. Solar roadway technology has many things to consider during development, the majority of which revolve around safety and maintaining efficient optical properties of the glass – two issues the solutions to which counter one another. Slippery glass requires a textured surface for grip, but textured glass may limit the amount of sunlight transmitted through to the photovoltaic layer. Scratch resistance is also an issue, requiring the hardest, thickest glass to maintain optimum transparency while allowing people, bicycles and other vehicles to travel over it. Combine these and you have a difficult product to manufacture and one that requires stringent testing before use in real-world settings. Indeed, Solar Earth Technologies must produce a fully operational solar roadway panel to undergo the equivalent of CSA testing at an independent lab. This level of testing has pushed the project back some months, and may have been the largest setback the Solar Compass team has faced so far, pushing the installation date back from the Summer of 2016 to the Fall – precariously close to the cold winter months.
Installation poses several problems as well. With the solar compass project being the first of its kind, there is no model to work with when developing plans. Solar Earth Technologies originally proposed using a precast concrete structure to support the panels in the ground. Due to the cold winters in Kamloops, and the existing concrete infrastructure in the courtyard, such an installation is less viable and likely very expensive. After some creative thinking and long discussion, the team settled upon using Krinner screws – heavy duty steel screws (see the video here) that drill into the ground providing adjustable support across the array. In this function, they would drill into the ground and stabilize the solar panels from below. The panels would then be sealed in with caulking mixture and the compass would be rebuilt around them.
A university environment also proves difficult when installing a project such as this. The project will be built in an area with a large amount of student traffic. How do you reroute thousands of students a day? Just another in a host of questions the Solar Compass team must deal with before the project begins.
Dr. Mehta believes that when engaging the minds and hearts of people you have to take risks, but he knows that exposure to new technology and innovative ideas will only serve to encourage the next generation of great minds to think big and to explore new opportunities for the use of sustainable technology. The City of Kamloops is watching the project closely as well, and perhaps the Solar Compass will be a test run for future city-wide projects of a similar nature. In the future, Kamloops residents may see similar examples of converging technologies throughout the city – places where art, architecture and future-driven solar technologies unite to inspire the public to transition to a renewable way of living. We can only hope!
Dr. Mehta is a Professor at TRU's Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, and Member and Secretary of the BCSEA Kamloops Chapter.
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