Queen’s could profit from solar panels

85,000 square feet of unused roof space could be transformed to save energy, make money and provide students with research opportunities, professor says

Mechanical engineering professor Joshua Pearce says with support from the Ontario Power Authority
Image by: Tyler Ball
Mechanical engineering professor Joshua Pearce says with support from the Ontario Power Authority

If Joshua Pearce has his way, the aerial view of Queen’s University will be very different in two years’ time.

The mechanical engineering professor’s Applied Sustainability group is lobbying to install solar panels on the University’s available roofs.

Pearce, who has a PhD in materials from Pennsylvania State University, said there are two parts to his research. On the more technical side, Pearce and a team of mostly mechanical engineering students are examining ways to make the average silicon solar panel much more efficient. The group’s looking at indium gallium nitride, Pearce said—a semiconductor material that, when combined with silicon, potentially has high efficiencies.

Along with his scientific research, Pearce is pushing for policies that favour widespread solar energy use.

“As a researcher, it’s very frustrating to make something cheaper than glass and still not have it widespread,” he said.

Developing a more efficient solar panel isn’t enough, Pearce said. It needs to be widely distributed, too.

“If you look at what it actually means to, say, get to a climate-acceptable carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere, we will have to put up a large-scale, huge nuclear power plant every two days for the next 40 years. That’s a massive challenge, so what that means is that we need to be pushing energy efficiency and more energy technologies as fast as we possibly can.”

Pearce said Queen’s has about 85,000 square feet of unused roof space. He said if that space were covered in solar panels, the University would stand to make a profit of between $2 million and $5 million by generating electricity and feeding it back onto the power grid.

In September, the Ontario Power Authority introduced a feed-in tariff that subsidizes those who channel renewable energy back onto the grid, Pearce said. For solar energy systems installed before January 2011, homeowners will receive 80.2 cents per kilowatt hour.

“You literally get a cheque in the mail for the amount of energy you produce and feed back onto the grid,” Pearce said, adding that Queen’s could receive 60 to 70 cents per kilowatt hour because it has larger roofs.

“It’s like a cash cow. You make money and you’re doing good for the environment.”

The Power Authority is providing a guaranteed 20-year contract for electricity generated with solar cells. But after January 2011, it’s likely the feed-in tariff rates will lower, Pearce said. That means to maximize profit, the University would need to sign a 20-year contract to install solar panels on its roofs before then.

“So far, every person that’s heard of the opportunity at the administrative level loves it. Everybody’s pro-green around here, and definitely if this can save the University money it seems a great asset, but movement on it has been relatively slow. It needs massive student support.”

Pearce said Queen’s is already progressive when it comes to solar energy—the Integrated Learning Centre is home to one of Canada’s first photovoltaic rays. But this proposal requires a dramatic shift to a world where every business will eventually produce a large fraction of its energy onsite, he said.

“It’s a major change in the way the University thinks of itself,” he said. “We don’t normally think of ourselves as selling power back onto the grid. That’s not one of the ways we make money.”

Committing to solar energy would also help Queen’s recruit students dedicated to renewable energy research, Pearce said.

He said the University could fund the solar panels themselves, take out loans or rent the roof space to another company to install the panels.

“If we do that we’ll only be making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, but we’re still benefitting,” he said.

As it stands, the project is waiting for a third-party engineering firm to study its viability—something Pearce said his students have already done.

“They might have a little bit more detail, but we basically know what the answers are,” he said. “But then we need to get funds in place and get a big order.”

The feed-in tariff was implemented to attract companies to invest in renewable energy in Ontario. In 2011, the requirements for where the solar panels can be built will also change, Pearce said.

“Right now, you can use panels from China—in 2011 that percentage bumps up and you have to start doing something with the panels here,” he said, adding that Canada doesn’t have as many established solar energy companies as countries like Germany and Japan.

All benefits aside, it’s clear Pearce is motivated by his own competitiveness, too.

“I want to see Queen’s being the first solar-powered university. … If we come in second, we’re second,” he said with a grin. “We don’t want that.”

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