By Annika Prom | Mar 13, 2020
Mercer Court solar panels

For almost a decade, UW Solar has made impacts by generating power and energy all across campus. Since getting solar panels installed on the roof of Mercer Court in 2014, the group has grown and worked with campus partners to add solar to several West Campus residence halls and the new Life Sciences Building.

With no signs of slowing down, UW Solar is looking to carry out two major projects this year that will encourage the use of alternative energy at the university.

The first is a campus-wide plan assessing more than 300 buildings and 36 parking lots to determine their solar capacity. From there, the members will recommend locations and best practices for applying more solar power across UW. Faculty adviser Jan Whittington, Associate Professor of the Department of Urban Design and Planning, says the club is on track to complete the campus-wide solar plan by Spring 2020.

Another big UW Solar project is working with UW Transportation Services to create a strategy to electrify their parking services and fleet of vehicles. This plan would transform the UW’s transportation offerings almost entirely off fossil fuels over about a 12-year span. 

UW Solar is also conducting a student survey to learn more about student attitudes toward solar power and renewable energy on campus. UW students can take the survey here.

Whitney Thomas is a member of UW Solar who acts as a student adviser and project manager. As a grad student, Thomas is studying aerospace engineering with her research being based in renewable energy. She feels the relationship between UW Solar and the university has grown vigorously, giving the club more opportunities to plan bigger projects.

“The University has started coming to us and asking us questions about sustainability-related or renewable energy-related projects,” Thomas said. “Students can have a lot more influence in what the university does.”

UW Solar partners with many departments on campus as well as local organizations. They worked Housing & Food Services (HFS) to get solar installations on several West Campus residence halls. When the Perkins+Will architecture team helped construct the new Life Sciences Building, UW Solar collaborated with them to add solar design features to the project.

It’s not all engineering at UW Solar. As an interdisciplinary RSO, UW Solar’s work requires some expertise across multiple majors. 

Most of the time spent on projects is dedicated to planning and figuring out finances, with design and installation being a small portion. The club typically has seven to eight active projects, and each project can take two to four years.

For Thomas, this timeline and collaborative process makes UW Solar accessible and feasible for students from a variety of disciplines to participate.

“Primarily, solar is a good way to give an opportunity for students to learn about sustainable energy,” Thomas said. “It's a relatively simple technology and then you can complete the project in the time that a normal undergraduate student is going to be at the university in the club.”

UW Solar made their mark with their first project in 2014, installing solar panels on the rooftop of the Mercer Court Apartments with the help of a Campus Sustainability Fund grant. From planning to design to funding, the students handled all the details. The only task they didn’t do themselves was the installation.

The 128 solar panels, all made in Washington state, generate 33,000 kwh of energy for the residents in Mercer Court. UW Solar also tracks real-time numbers of the energy that the Mercer solar panels produce throughout the day.

This work set the foundation for bigger photovoltaic projects. UW Solar partnered with HFS and Seattle City Light for a project installing smaller solar panel arrays atop Maple, Alder, and Elm residence halls. 

The RSO started up in 2012 when students in an infrastructure, planning, and finance course continued to meet after the class ended. These students then asked their professor, Whittington, if it was possible to develop real physical infrastructure on campus. 

Eager to continue teaching students in her area of expertise, Whittington took on the role of faculty advisor. 

“Our purpose stretches quite far beyond the importance of solar infrastructure or how to do solar infrastructure,” Whittington said. “This club participates in all three missions of the University: research, teaching, and service.” 

At any given time, there are 25 to 40 students in the club from all three campuses, ranging from undergrads to post docs. The students embody these three missions by working towards UW Solar’s mission of promoting clean energy and mentoring new members along the way.

“It's really pretty exciting because the students get to develop skill sets and knowledge and as quickly as they can, they've turned around and teach other students,” Whittington said.

Those interested in learning more about UW Solar can check the UW Solar website for project updates. As they continue picking up momentum, UW Solar is working to combat the University’s carbon footprint while bringing students together.