Fayetteville's Solar Test Bed

Thinking Green

By John Coleman

Library set to install region’s largest solar array

One of the incredible things about living in a town with a major research university is the endless opportunities for collaboration. The latest news from the Fayetteville Public Library is a striking example of capitalizing on such an occasion.
On St. Patty’s Day, Louise Schaper, the executive director of the library, announced the library had been selected by the International City/County Manager’s Association in partnership with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to receive a $60,000 grant. This grant will go towards the installation of about 50 solar panels on this already magnificent building.
At first blush, this may not seem like a big deal. After all, solar has been in use all over the country since the 1970s, but the details of this project and future potential that lies within are what set it apart.
The aptly titled “Solar Test Bed” was born from a holiday party conversation between Len and Louise Schaper and Len’s colleague at the University of Arkansas College of Engineering, Dr. Alan Mantooth.
Library staff members have longed for a solar application, and one of Mantooth’s former students recently had developed an energy inverter that needed a showcase. The grant provided a prime opportunity to make each of these ambitions a reality.
After a few weeks of brainstorming between the library, the city of Fayetteville, the university and Southwest Electric Power Co., the idea of the solar test bed emerged. Mechanical and electrical engineering students will design and install the array’s framework as part of a senior design class. And in late 2010, Arkansas Power Electronics International, a young startup company in the Research & Technology Park, will have its silicon carbide inverter ready to showcase its superior efficiency.
Because of the involvement of UA students and faculty, 95 percent of grant dollars will go towards solar panels with the remainder being spent on framing materials. This allows the library to maximize the amount of renewable energy that can be generated. At the same time, engineering students will get to cut their teeth on a renewable energy application that will be around for decades.
In the end, the array will provide enough energy to power the equivalent of two homes in Fayetteville, thereby reducing the library’s energy costs by about $5,000 a year; data will be made available through an education kiosk funded by a generous $8,500 grant from the Arkansas Energy Office. But what could prove to be most important is the opportunity to get APEI’s inverter on the market and help grow a Fayetteville-based company into a clean-technology leader.

John Coleman is the sustainability coordinator for the city of Fayetteville.

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