Looking directly into the sun

Published 11:10 am Friday, April 30, 2010

Students in kindergarten through 12th grade will reap the benefits of the inaugural solar installer class at Riverland Community College.

The solar installer class has designed and is building a solar trailer as its final project. There will be six solar panels on the top and two on the side that can tilt for optimum exposure. With sunlight, the solar photovoltaic system will generate 1,500 watts of electricity at 120 volts for off-grid use, said instructor Steve Vietor.

Students had to design the project and construct it so the panels will be level and secure, he said.

Email newsletter signup

“But this isn’t just a solar project,” he said. “It will be used as an outreach component of renewable resources education for K-12 use.”

The trailer will house a hands-on classroom. Inside will be solar education kits appropriate for middle school and high school students. There will also be a panel inside the trailer just like people use in their homes and businesses. The panels make DC voltage. It comes into the trailer, goes through an inverter and converts the voltage to AC, which is what people use in their homes. There will also be a battery system in the trailer to use as backup.

“In the K-12 environment, there are few references in textbooks and literally no hands-on opportunities for renewable energy, yet kids are seeing this equipment pop up in their backyards,” Vietor said.

He said the college has actually been working with Albert Lea Area Schools to incorporate the trailer into the ninth-grade curriculum.

In addition to a solar voltaic system, a small wind turbine will be mounted on the hitch of the trailer.

“A lot of instructors have been asking about it,” Vietor said. “They will actually be able to go to the Riverland website and log the trailer out for hands-on activities for their classrooms.”

Besides the K-12 component, the trailer will also be available for community and civic groups and nonprofit organizations to use when they are hosting an event and no electricity is available.

“It could be set up to power lights and sound systems,” Vietor said.

Vietor said the off-grid trailer system (not connected to any power source) the students are constructing is actually more complicated than a grid system, which hooks right into a building’s wiring.

This coming fall, the college plans to have a solar panel system and wind turbine installed on the campus, Vietor said.

Jason Tieskotter of Austin began teaching in the electrical program this year and helped students with the trailer’s design.

The toughest part, he said, was fabricating it all from scratch. “There was a lot of trial and error,” he added.

He said because of the newness of the program, everyone — including the instructors — are still learning.

“It’s a new program, but we’re hoping it may help our students get the skills they need to get a job,” Tieskotter said.