Logo: University of Southern California

Viterbi Undergraduates Capture Solar Power for USC Electric Cars

Alice C. Parker and Gordon Roesler's Alternative Energy class sets and achieves green goals within real-world campus parameters

December 09, 2011 —

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Here comes the sun: panels assembled by Viterbi students take light and make power in Dec. 6 demo.
The Global Electric Motorcars (GEM) vehicles that are ubiquitous on USC's University Park campus now plug into the power grid to recharge. But someday they may be plugging into solar charging stations built and designed by Viterbi School of Engineering undergraduates.

A preview took place in the Engineering Quad on Dec. 6, when the 32 honors juniors and seniors in Engineering 499 "Alternative Energy Engineering," set up an array of eight solar panels in brilliant sunshine, generating a 1,200-watt flow of energy into batteries and a waiting GEM. To open the demonstration, the group diverted a small trickle of this flow into a boombox, which thumped out a rousing solar-powered "Here Comes the Sun."

Professor Alice Parker of USC Viterbi's Ming Hsieh Department of Electrical Engineering taught the class. Gordon Roesler, who is center director for energy research at USC Viterbi's Information Sciences Institute assisted, along with Associate Professor Katherine Shing from the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science.

The class project was to create a temporary solar installation that could capture enough energy to recharge the GEM cars. And the class did so.

The class focused on solar energy “because,” said Parker, “it is a critically important area. And it is totally interdisciplinary, so interdisciplinary that you can’t make contributions without knowing about multiple areas.“

The multiple areas are not just academic disciplines. The parameters of the project evolved through a continuing conversation and evolution involving a wide range of USC entities. And facing these real-world problems is a key element of Parker's conception of the course.

Initially, the idea was for the students to actually create a fixed solar charger attached to a campus building. But practical campus issues complicated that approach. For a variety of reasons brought up by non-academic stakeholders (security, safety, regulatory issues and others) the class instead designed a portable station with movable panels that performed a demonstration charge.

A GEM getting a charge: instructors Gordon Roesler and Alice Parker (at the wheel) drove a creative class in solar power.
Mark Ewalt of Auxiliary Services was one of the leaders of the group of USC staff and faculty who have been discussing ‘green-related’ potential student sustainability projects for some time, and who provided input to the student engineers. Others in the group included:

  • Rob Forseberg and Jeff Pendley – Fire Safety: Advised on permits needed and safety issues
  • Carol Fern – FMS: Advised on physical plant and campus location issues, as well as ongoing sustainability system-related issues
  • Jim Anderson – Safety and Risk Management: Advised on liability issues and safety concerns
  • Chief Carey Drayton – DPS: Advised on security concerns and possible locations for future projects
  • Tony Mazza – USC Transportation: Provided space and vehicles for the project
  • Michael Jackson – Student Affairs: Advised on campus space and student project issues

And Parker was insistent that the class deal with these kinds of issues: “It is out of the lab,” she said. “The students have to make tradeoffs: the decisions are not easy or clear. That’s what engineering life is like and they have to be exposed to it.”

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Solar studies: early in the year, students test an array of solar panels.
The real-world input wasn't just from USC campus administrators. During the semester, the class heard from USC business school graduate Mike Bass, now Project Manager at eSolar, with perspectives on the non-engineering issues involved in alternative energy solutions along with an overview of solar thermal technologies, an alternative to the photovoltaic panels the class is working with.

And as the class has moved forward, Parker said she appreciates the support she has received from the Viterbi School Office of Student Affairs, particularly from Julie Phaneuf, assistant director of student services.

Parker is also pleased by support from the Viterbi School as a whole, including financial support for expensive materials, not just the solar cells, but switches and other hardware. The batteries used were donated by Trojan Batteries, a company founded by USC alumni.

And she notes that the class is very much a direct embodiment of the vision of Dean Yannis C. Yortsos: “It is interdisciplinary Engineering+,” she said. “It is work on one of the NAE Grand Challenges, it is entrepreneurial and following a vision of technology leading societal change.”

"These are the students who will be leaders," she added, "providing interdisciplinary solutions to real social problems."

Parker is not the only happy teacher. “I’m following Alice’s lead,” Roesler added. “Give the students information and get out of their way. They are bright, creative and inquisitive. Teaching the course and watching them build solar panels has been a tremendous amount of fun.”

Roesler and Parker were both extremely grateful to Dave Kang, an executive at CSI Electric, who contributed advice and input throughout the class, including a visit the day before the student project demonstration, helping with issues of safety, adherence to commercial standards and other necessities.

And on Dec. 6, a cheer went around the quad, as the light struck the panels, and the power gauge rose steadily and held at the 1,200 watt mark.

(Click here to download the class syllabus)

Roesler, Parker and a triumphant class of students celebrate a successful sun-day.