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Putting Their Education Into Practice: ECE ILLINOIS building is generating electrical power


Ryann Monahan, ECE ILLINOIS

The solar panel installation on the top of the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) building at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is now generating renewable electricity for the state-of-the-art building and contributing to the campus-wide power grid. 

“Each panel, on its own, delivers power directly into the building electricity grid.  Since we are connected directly into the campus grid, the power flows there immediately,” Philip Krein, lead on the project and professor in electrical and computer engineering, said.

The installation gets the ECE ILLINOIS building closer to its ultimate goal of net-zero energy.  The panels on the building are expected to contribute roughly 1/5 of the electricity needs of the building.  However, the benefits are much more wide-reaching. The energy generated at each and every panel is immediately converted to "plug and power" grid-ready AC electricity helping the UI campus reach its ambitious goal of 30% reduction in energy emissions from 2008 to 2020.

Additionally, sixty panels have been set aside specifically for hands-on student learning and research efforts.  The research panels connect into the ECE ILLINOIS Advanced Power Applications Laboratory. They will be used for all types of student projects as well as an unlimited range of energy-related research. “I don’t know anyone else who has a substantial installation literally ‘within’ their lab. We have direct access – it is not a remotely wired installation – so we can make immediate tests.” Krein said.

 The ECE ILLINOIS building’s AC solar panel installation is one of the largest of its kind.  Most AC solar panel installations are residential, with larger solar systems, like the University of Illinois Solar Farm, using DC panels.  However, ECE ILLINOIS’ AC panels offer the building more flexibility and opportunities to avoid constraining energy production.  AC solar panels greatly enhance the flexibility of solar system design, manage shading and dirt much more effectively than conventional systems, and greatly reduce the cost of designing and installing solar power.

“With DC panels, you must avoid most shading, maintain wide spacing between rows, and make sure there are no local problems,” Krein said.  “With AC panels, structures or even exhaust pipes that cause shading can pretty much be ignored.  If one panel gets dirty or has some leaf cover or snow cover, we don’t lose enough power to worry about.”

Years in the making, the solar panel design and installation now sets the stage for new research, innovation, and discovery when it comes to solar panels.  “We completed a DoE-funded project on solar power that taught us new considerations for solar panel layouts and roof configurations,” Philip Krein said.  “We believe we will get about 30% more energy from our roof than what would be obtained with a more conventional system.”

Active displays will soon be set up in the ECE building’s atrium to show energy usage and power flows. On sunny days, passersby may be able to watch the building’s net-energy use drop close to zero.

The Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering’s solar project was funded by generous donations, the Grainger Center for Electric Machinery and Electromechanics, the Grainger Engineering College, the State of Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, and the Student Sustainability Committee. 

Check out the News-Gazette story "And array we go: Solar panels on UI ECE Building's roof now providing power," the WCIA-TV post here, and read more about the solar panel installation from the official ECE ILLINOIS press release

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