University installs solar panels to help fuel electric car

Tags: energy management

University of Virginia students who converted a Honda to run on electricity will now try to power it – at least partly – with solar energy.

Students in James Durand's mechanical engineering class converted the 1994 Accord to run on electricity last year. Now they are working with U.Va. Facilities Management to install photovoltaic panels near its parking space to generate electricity to offset some of what the car consumes.

The panels were installed Tuesday atop a bus kiosk at the Emmet/Ivy Garage and will feed electricity to the garage. The car, which will be used by the Department of Parking and Transportation, will be berthed and recharged at the garage.

"The solar-generated electricity will be part of the power supply for the garage," said Cheryl Gomez, director of utilities for the university. "And we will meter it. Assuming roughly 1,100 hours of sunlight per year, this should yield about 1,320 kilowatt-hours of electricity per year."

The car, which can travel about 120 miles between charges, will probably consume about 3,100 kilowatts of electricity if the car is driven about 5,600 miles per year, Gomez said. This will mean the panels will offset about 43 percent of car's energy use.

"We will put the electricity in one area and take it out another," said Durand, an adjunct professor and research associate in the School of Engineering and Applied Science.

Six 200-watt photovoltaic cells, measuring about 3 feet by 5 feet each and weighing a total of 240 pounds, were paid for through donations and installed by Facilities Management employees. These panels, which are guaranteed for 25 years, should reduce the University's carbon footprint by about 0.8 metric tons of carbon dioxide a year, Gomez said.

Durand said the electric car would have no emissions and if it is powered by solar energy, "it approaches the more sustainable, because we would not be burning anything. This is alternative energy, with zero emissions, no greenhouse gases and electric cars are quiet as well."

Durand said the car has a cruising speed of about 65 miles per hour.

"It only has one moving part and an electrical motor can last for millions of miles with very little maintenance," Durand said. "This car has about 10 percent of the maintenance cost of a conventional automobile."

Durand said that about 30 students were involved with the project, which has been dubbed "Ride Forward."

"It's an engineering course, but it is multi-disciplinary, with students doing everything from designing the car to constructing it," Durand said. "This a group effort to find sustainable transportation."

Andrew Greene, the University's sustainability coordinator, appreciates that students can conduct their research close to home.

"They can learn in their own backyard," Greene said. "They can bring something new to the University and offer students a learning opportunity."

While this project is to offset the electric draw of the car, Durand has a grander vision.

"I dream of a larger system that will reduce the University's peak power demand, with a smart grid that will store the electricity," he said. 

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