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March 25, 2003

Just Add Sun

Darren De Ronde, Matt Dykhouse, Ryan Johnson, Jamie Overweg

As part of their senior engineering design project at Calvin, a team of four engineering majors is taking on what people familiar with Grand Rapids weather might think to be an impossible task: creating solar energy for the school's campus.

But both the quartet of students and the Michigan Energy department are resolute in their belief that exploring solar energy makes sense for Calvin. In fact, the Michigan Energy department gave the students a $6,000 grant to help fund the project.

So far the four seniors - Jamie Overweg of Zeeland, Ryan Johnson of Grand Haven, Darren DeRonde of Willmar, Minn., and Matt Dykhouse of Port Lambton, Ont. - are optimistic about their project. Their goal is relatively modest. They want to install eight panels of about 30 by 60 inches each on the roof of the Calvin Engineering Building and generate enough power for a 1.2 kilowatt system.

For the senior design project banquet, slated for May 10, the team hopes to have their system power a demonstration home office. But eventually the plan is to install their effort on the roof of the Calvin Engineering Building and have it power an e-mail station in the building. Students who use the station in the future would likely also see a plaque nearby noting that they were checking e-mail thanks to solar energy.

The project began with design planning, selecting and feasibility studies during the first semester. The students then moved on to logistics and buying parts. Now they're planning for installation of the panels and testing. Most of the parts have arrived and will be tested and assembled the week of March 24.

The students note that research into solar energy is taking off at a national level. And that their work will provide valuable training and hands-on experience in a field that they describe as "really starting to ramp up."

They admit too that war and questions about U.S. dependence on foreign oil add even more fuel to the race to find alternative energy sources. They note that both British Petroleum and Shell Oil are currently producing solar panels.

But what about the long local winters and that disturbing lack of sunshine between November and April?

The students are non-plussed by that challenge. In fact they say that though it's an issue, and that Grand Rapids is "not ideal" for solar energy, the positive is that solar panels are more efficient in cold weather than hot. They are designing their system based on the realities of West Michigan weather however. They plan to have the panels mounted at the peak of the Engineering Building and will include a light sensor that will tilt the panels to follow the sun. Their system also will concentrate significant resources on storage and back-up energy capabilities for those stretches when the sun doesn't appear too often in the winter sky!

"We are designing for worst-case scenarios," says Johnson with a smile.

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Contact Phil de Haan
616-526-6475 (v)
616-526-7069 (f)