Students recycle to study renewable energy

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By Laurel Bollinger, ECE ILLINOIS
May 28, 2009

ECE students took solar panels from a prior project, and placed them on the roof of Everitt Lab to conduct experiments on solar power.
ECE students took solar panels from a prior project, and placed them on the roof of Everitt Lab to conduct experiments on solar power.

At the University of Illinois, students are nothing if not resourceful, finding class projects in discarded material. One example is ECE graduate student Grant Pitel's group project of installing solar panels on top of Everitt Lab.

In his last semester he was looking for a challenge, as well as a way to put to use his academic studies and experience in controls. When Pitel found out about eight solar panels left over from the 2007 Solar Decathlon, he wanted to put them to use. As a part of the Power Electronics Research Group, he was also sure that he could use them to do solar panel experiments. With a team of students interested in being apart of a renewable energy project, Pitel was ready to go. He was assisted by Mike Driscoll, Hari Krishna, and Taylor Wu, with ECE Professor Philip Krein advising the project.

"Right now, renewable energy is getting a lot of interest, which was a big motivation for the project," said Pitel. "However, while a lot of people want to see green technology, from a research standpoint, renewable energy is old news for us."

Being old news didn't keep Pitel and his group from working on the project the entire semester. During the first half they did a lot of planning. Everything was built and planned from scratch. "All we had were the solar panels, and we had to figure out the correct way to install it and what all we needed," said Pitel. Everything they needed was sent from New Mexico, where many of the main solar energy distributers are located.

After the planning and ordering was done, construction could start. Most of the frame construction started indoors with the intention to finish assembly on the roof. After construction, the panels were mounted to the frames on the Everitt Lab roof and connected to a set of breakers in the lab. The breakers allow the group to turn the solar panels off and on from inside the lab. Custom energy processing hardware and software, built by students and programmed by Pitel, let them "control all aspects of injecting power into the grid," said Pitel. "This is different than buying a commercial inverter because with a commercial one you have limited control."

However their custom inverter has its own limitations. While it allows the group to monitor and control phase, frequency, bus voltage, phase current, and control effort, it is more valuable as a research tool and was not designed for continuous operation. The project was funded in part by the Grainger Foundation. The Student Energy Committee recently denied the group funding, money that would have bought a commercial inverter, which would keep the unit running continuously.

Besides this little setback, Pitel said that overall he is proud of his group and what they have accomplished. The entire project was done basically for Pitel's own curiosity and initiative, giving him the opportunity to work on a large-scale controls system.

"Pretty much I wanted to further my research, which is in controls," said Pitel. "I wanted something that would be a good application for my learning and would allow me to create a custom hardware, and this was it."

Pitel sees a future for his project and ideas that will keep it going for semesters to come. "I see the application of plugging in hybrids with the intent to drastically affect the power quality of our system," said Pitel. "So by changing the phase of the power going in, that could help out in some ways. There are plenty of things to play around with."

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at or (217) 244-6376.

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