|by Marcia Goodrich, senior writer
It was a damp and cloudy day, but the solar panels
were still churning out electricity as the Keweenaw
Research Center dedicated the new Michigan Tech Solar
Photovoltaic Research Facility.
"It's amazing what free energy is out there to gather
up," KRC Director Jay Meldrum told the crowd jamming the
conference room in KRC's Engineering Building.
The two-kilowatt system generates enough energy to
charge all of the electric snowmobiles competing in the
SAE Clean Snowmobile Challenge, held every year at KRC,
but that's just a bonus. The system's two main purposes
are to support research in photovoltaic systems and to
introduce student engineers to solar technologies.
Because the facility includes a variety of solar
panels, researchers can compare their performance. And
scientists don't necessarily have to be on site: Inside
the building, a monitor displays a detailed, 24/7 flow
of data from each of the modules mounted just outside.
All that information will soon be free and available on
The possibilities go far beyond solar panel design,
Meldrum said. Researchers can investigate how the
facility integrates with the larger electric grid, the
economics of solar power, and all the system's other
The facility is state of the art, in part because
SolarBridge Technologies, of Austin, Texas, has donated
10 microinverters. They are attached to each of the
modules and convert each panel's DC current into AC
current compatible with household use.
Those microinverters are key, said two faculty
members who expect to use the facility in their
research. "The cool thing about this is the inverters,"
said Professor Bruce Mork (ECE). "You don't need
batteries. They allow you to connect directly into your
Associate Professor Joshua Pearce (MSE, ECE) agreed.
"This is plug and play," said Pearce. Microinverters
help to drive down the price of solar energy and make it
more and more attractive to a mass market. As a result,
"solar can now play ball in places where electricity is
costly, like Hawaii," he said.
Ron Van Dell, president and CEO of SolarBridge and a
1979 electrical engineering graduate, predicted that the
facility will help drive solar power closer to
widespread use. "This will be a fruitful area for
research," he said, adding that he expected the program
to draw investigators from many disciplines, including
With an annual snowfall averaging 200-plus inches,
this might not seem like the ideal spot to study
photovoltaic systems. But SolarBridge tests its
equipment in all kinds of conditions, from Antarctica to
the American West. Snow can actually be a benefit, Van
Dell said, since it reflects sunlight.
The facility has an added advantage for Michigan
Tech: it may also bring more top researchers here. "The
timing of this couldn't be better," said President Glenn
Mroz. "As we continue to fill positions in the Strategic
Faculty Hiring Initiative in Next-Generation Energy
Systems, this facility lets us demonstrate to potential
faculty members that they can be successful here."
Dow Corning, of Midland, and Hemlock Semiconductor, a
partially owned subsidiary of Dow Corning based in
Hemlock, donated the facility's solar panels, which were
made by a number of manufacturers. Dow Corning produces
the silicones used in making the panels. Hemlock
Semiconductor manufactures polycrystalline silicon, the
black, glass-like material on the panels' surface that
"We're proud and happy this has worked out so well,"
said Bill Huss, global productivity manager for Dow
Corning and a 1983 chemical engineering graduate. He
addressed the students in the crowd: "One of the primary
reasons we're doing this is for you," he said. Steve
Trombley, a 1989 mechanical engineering graduate and
DPHOST Reliability Team leader at Hemlock Semiconductor,
agreed. "The main reason we want to do this is for
students, to get you excited about working in solar
energy and maybe inspire you to work for a great company
like Dow Corning or Hemlock Semiconductor."
Undergraduates in Michigan Tech's Alternative Fuels
Group Enterprise will be among the first to get involved
in the new research facility. KRC has a small weather
station at the site, and the students will correlate the
solar cells' output with the local weather, monitoring
how they behave under varying conditions.
With so much interest in the new facility, Meldrum
forecast a bright future, despite the gloomy weather.
"This will be a great research station," he said.