Solar energy shines on campus and curriculum
by Bill Sulon
October 13, 2009
Physics major Sam Wheeler ’10 with the Solar Wheeler he built for use at the College Farm.
Solar panels have been generating electricity and hot water for more than a year at the Dickinson College Farm. The lighting system in Stuart and James halls of the Rector Science Complex adjusts automatically, resulting in lower electricity usage on bright days.
This month, weather permitting, solar panels will be installed on the Center for Sustainable Living—known as the Treehouse—to make the already energy-efficient student residence even greener. The new panels will provide electricity to the Treehouse, and the excess electricity, such as the energy produced in the summer months when the residence is unoccupied, will be sold to the local utility company, PPL Corp.
“The installation of educational and energy-saving solar technology on the Treehouse further solidifies the commitment of student-residents to making conscious lifestyle choices related to sustainability. It also serves as further proof of Dickinson’s commitment to make conservation, sustainability and energy-awareness a part of the curriculum and college practice,” said Sarah Brylinsky, sustainability education coordinator at the Center for Environmental and Sustainability Education.
A sun-tracking solar collector that heats water, invented by Professor of Physics Hans Pfister, chair of the Department of Physics & Astronomy, also will be installed at the Treehouse.
For now, Pfister’s invention—which is constructed with building-supply store mirrors and several readily available car parts—is collecting rays atop Tome Hall of the Rector Science Complex. Inside Tome, another solar device, a charging station, is servicing needs in and out of the classroom.
The station—featuring sun-collecting photovoltaic cells, an electronic charge controller, a deep-cycle rechargeable marine battery, an inverter and power strips with 12 outlets—is used as a teaching tool one month a year in Pfister’s Energy and Environmental Physics class. For the remaining 11 months, it is a free-charging source for users of laptops, iPods, cell phones and other electronic devices.
Back at the college farm, another energy-saving invention, the Solar Wheeler, is making the rounds. The former golf cart, now equipped with a solar-paneled roof and a bank of rechargeable batteries, is used as a utility vehicle for transporting freshly picked crops, equipment and visitors to the farm who might have difficulties walking and otherwise would be unable to tour the area.
Named after its builder, physics major Sam Wheeler ’10, the Solar Wheeler is another example of a useful education at Dickinson. Wheeler, who during the 2008-09 academic year studied abroad in Dickinson’s Bologna, Italy, program, needed work for the summer. (While in Bologna, he successfully completed an upper-level physics course, Quantum Mechanics, taught in Italian.)
With the help of the physics department, the Jericho, Vt., resident landed a position with Matt Steiman, assistant farm manager, the person who came up with the idea of building a solar-powered cart.
Wheeler also worked at Dickinson’s biodiesel plant and contributed to the drafting of the college’s Climate Change Action Plan, which outlines Dickinson’s commitment to reach climate neutrality by drastically reducing its greenhouse gas emissions and long-term operational costs.
Steiman received a grant for the parts and hours needed to make a solar-powered cart, enabling Wheeler to put his ingenuity to work on the Solar Wheeler; construction details are recounted in his blog.
For Wheeler, the photovoltaic farm vehicle may hold the keys to future research and inventions.
“After Dickinson, I'd like to go to graduate school for photovoltaic research,” Wheeler said. “I’d like to use applied physics in the energy industry, perhaps by developing less expensive and more efficient photovoltaic cells.”