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Solar Energy Tracking System Research Earns CIT Grant

Michael SeekMichael Seek

In the growing, competitive photovoltaic (PV) energy industry, there is an ongoing quest for energy efficiency and cost-effectiveness.

Researchers at Old Dominion University are active in this quest for affordable clean energy from the sun. The latest endeavor, a multidisciplinary research project aimed at improving the technology used in tracking systems for rooftop solar installations, has received a $25,000 grant from Virginia's Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), under its matching funds program.

The project, "Advanced Single Axis Solar Tracking System for Enhanced Energy Generation," is led by Michael Seek, assistant professor of engineering technology.

"The ultimate goal is to bring down the costs of the tracking system by being more efficient with materials and the actual manufacturing," Seek said.

Other researchers on the project include Orlando Ayala, assistant professor of engineering technology, Sylvain Marsillac, professor of electrical and computer engineering; and Vukica Jovanovic, assistant professor of engineering technology in the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology; and Erika Marsillac, assistant professor of decision sciences in the Strome College of Business.

The ODU research team - with expertise in structural, mechanical and materials engineering, power electronics, and manufacturing management - is developing a more cost-effective PV tracking system, composed of improved PV panels and mounting structures.

With a market share of more than $200 billion, the PV industry is now a major energy industry sector. In the United States alone, enough PV panels to produce more than 5,000 megawatts of electricity are installed each year, and the Department of Defense intends to increase its production of renewable energy to 20 percent of its total energy consumption by 2020. Through innovations, the U.S. Department of Energy expects the installation cost to drop by more than 50 percent.

The innovation being developed by the ODU research team, which is part of this effort to cut costs, focuses on improved mounting structures that affix solar panels to rooftops.

Applying innovation to the mounting structures can transform them from a passive and costly placement component to an active contributor to power generation and return on investment, by allowing them to move to best capture the sun's powerful rays, or be lowered to protect the panels from high winds and other damaging weather.

Seek said reducing costs of the tracking system can shorten the "payback" time for installing solar energy systems on residences, or the amount of time the installation needs to be in place for the energy costs savings to pay for it.

The ODU team has already developed and installed a first generation functional tracking PV system that can produce 30 percent more electricity than a system where the PV panels are fixed in place

Based upon that successful experience (and in collaboration with industry partners Solar Services, Bay Electrics, Siemens and Dominion Resources) the team aims to develop a second generation tracking system for mass production.

"The ultimate goal would be for this project to become a commercial application that can be broadly implemented," Seek said.

Sylvain Marsillac, director of Old Dominion University's PV Institute, received a $500,000 grant in 2012 to help test solar energy concepts on the roof of Kaufman Hall, ODU's engineering building. That led to the creation of the PV test bed with the original tracking system.

Marsillac, one of the country's leading researchers into photovoltaic energy, has received more than $3 million in funding from sources such as the U.S. Department of Energy and National Science Foundation since arriving in Norfolk four years ago.

The Kaufman Hall test bed is one of a number of research projects being done at Old Dominion University under the PV Institute.

Last May, Dominion Virginia Power selected ODU to be the first participant in the company's Solar Partnership Program. More than 600 solar panels have been installed on the roof of ODU's Student Recreation Center, and will generate 132 kilowatts of power for the electric grid.

That project will have a dedication on the ODU campus July 8.