UW-Rock County turns to the sun

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Thursday, July 29, 2010
— The sun doesn’t always shine.

Such was the case during a recent week—wouldn’t you know it—as Bob McCallister was showing off UW-Rock County’s new solar-energy project.

The Janesville campus is home to three configurations of solar panels, all pumping out electricity that the power company is buying.

Even on an overcast day, there was enough light to generate juice, the UW-Rock geography professor noted.

Then the sun broke through the clouds.

McCallister was standing underneath a pole-mounted array, which can sense the brightest spot in the sky and turn towards it, like a sunflower.

“Oh look, look! You can really see it!”

Sure enough, the 9-by-12-foot array moved, ever so slowly, to the best light-absorbing angle.

“These things are quite a bit more expensive up front, but they’re also a lot more efficient,” said McCallister, who has been working to get the solar project up and running for the past four years.

In addition to the array that tracks the sun, there’s another pole-mounted array that can be adjusted manually to account for the angle of the sun as the seasons change.

A third set of solar panels is anchored like an awning along the south side of the school’s engineering addition.

Each array has nine identical photovoltaic panels that turn sunlight into electricity. The arrays produced direct current or DC. The DC runs through devices called inverters, which convert it to alternating current—AC. Alternating current is the kind of electricity everyone uses at home.

Planning began in 2006, but the panels didn’t start generating electricity until late last year.

In the first five months of this year, the panels generated $1,060 worth of electricity. The state, which pays UW-Rock’s utility bills, benefits from the arrangement.

If this average carries through for the year, the total net credit to the state would be over $2,500 for 2010.

The money is nice, but McCallister and his colleagues hope to generate more than electricity.

The prime objective is to teach, and UW-Rock professors are bursting with plans.

The campus’s four-year engineering degree students can look out the windows of their laboratory to see the solar arrays, and the direct current is piped directly into the lab for hands-on electrical-design projects.

UW-Rock also is offering to work with science teachers, offering tours and projects.

For example, students will be able to access real-time data from each of the arrays, compare them and conclude which is most efficient.

UW-Rock hopes to develop a graduate-level course for teachers, to delve more deeply into how they could use alternative energy to spark student interest.

Dale Buechler, a UW-Platteville professor who teaches electrical engineering at UW-Rock, said such exposure could pay off as students consider what subjects to take in high school.

“If you get them early on and get them interested in things we can do in science and engineering, then later on they’ll take the coursework that’s needed to go into those fields,” Buechler said.

For college students, the solar arrays give an opportunity to work on real-life projects instead of learning from a textbook, Buechler said.

UW-Rock also would offer expertise to local business.

“If there’s anything we can do in the community in the way of green infrastructure for jobs, that’s a goal we have,” McCallister said.

McCallister is fired up about the potential of alternative energies to replace fossil fuels, which have downsides such as pollution and wars for control of resources.

Buechler stresses the dollars and watts for companies: “In addition to making them want to do the right thing for the environment, it’s got to be financially feasible for them. They’re not going to spend lot of money on something that’s not going to help them succeed financially.”

McCallister said the solar project is not meant to pay off in big dollars for UW-Rock. For the approximately $80,000 that went into the project, UW-Rock could have coated a rooftop with panels to crank many more kilowatt hours, he said.

Instead, the devices were set up with sensors, software and wiring so students could learn and maybe even come up with insights in how to make solar power more efficient.

“That’s what we’re supposed to do. We don’t have to be practical,” McCallister said. “Heck, if people were practical all the time, we’d never get anywhere.”

Up next: Officials are looking for grant money to set up a small wind-power generator. Capacity already is built into the system to handle the windmill’s output.


UW-Rock beat a lot of bushes to come up with funding for its solar project. Support came from:

-- The state of Wisconsin’s Focus on Energy program

-- Alliant Energy

-- UW-Platteville

-- Burmester Charitable Trust

-- Mouat Charitable Trust

-- Ashcraft Charitable Trust

-- Sam’s Club Foundation

Anyone with Internet access soon will be able to see real-time power-generation data from UW-Rock County’s solar panels through a link on the school’s website, rock.uwc.edu.

Last updated: 2:15 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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