Students experiment with ECEB solar panels to understand challenges of solar energy

1/7/2022 Illinois ECE

This year, ECE 469 was revamped to include experiments with the ECEB solar panels to help students understand the real-world implications and challenges of harvesting energy from solar. 

Written by Illinois ECE

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A student partially shading her solar panel to understand implication on the extracted power. 

Illinois ECE students extracted power for the first time from the ECEB Solar Panels as a part of their Power Electronics Laboratory (ECE 469) experience. One of the unique features of the ECE Building is the easy accessibility to its roof-top solar panels that can be used for research and teaching. This year ECE 469 was revamped to include experiments with these solar panels. Students got to interact with them and understand the real-world implications and challenges of harvesting energy from solar. Illinois ECE Assistant Professor Arijit Banerjee, the course director for ECE 469, said, “We are thrilled to get these solar panels as a part of our undergraduate curriculum. It took almost a year-and-a-half of meticulous planning and perseverance to include these new experiments while building safety infrastructure around it. And this does not count the years it took for us to have these solar panels and layout cables in the first place! It is gratifying to see those happy faces of students who enjoyed these experiments and got a taste of real-world engineering.”

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Students experimenting with their power converters to extract maximum power from the panels. 

The revamped ECE 469 now has a series of four experiments where students create their modular power converters. These power converters are vital building blocks for harvesting energy from renewable resources. Along the way, students get to study and understand different aspects of power converters, such as thermal considerations, printed circuit board layouts, analog circuits, signal sensing, digitizing and processing, control frameworks, and microprocessor programming. Finally, in the last experiment, students connect their power converter to an ECEB solar panel to characterize the panel in terms of its current-voltage and power-voltage graphs. Running experiments to extract maximum power from these solar panels under actual ambient conditions allows students to see the variability of solar energy and draws their attention to challenges at the power-system level.

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Maximum power extracted from a quarter of a solar panel on a day with cumulus clouds.

Professor Banerjee added, “These experiments are a melting pot of so many fundamental concepts. The intention was to give students a glimpse of the tightly-knitted multidisciplinary fabric of knowledge that enables real-world engineering. These lab developments would have been impossible if I had not received help and support from a dedicated and passionate group of people. Help from Kevin Colravy, Mark Smart, Greg Bennett, Skee Aldrich, Glen Hedin, Debranjan Mukherjee, Dipanjan Das, Elisa Krause, Amanda Skittone, Joo-Seung Kim, Joyce Mast, and Casey Smith is enthusiastically acknowledged.”

Financial support from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Student Sustainability Committee, the State of Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, the Grainger Center for Electric Machinery and Electromechanics, the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, and the Grainger College of Engineering was instrumental in making this unique resource available to our students.

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This story was published January 7, 2022.