Feature News

North Central College expands solar power, energy efficiencies across campus

Jan 22, 2018

Demonstrating again its strong commitment to sustainability and renewable energy, North Central College has added two more solar panel arrays on campus—its third and fourth in just two years.

The latest photovoltaic (PV) installations feature a 174-panel array at the College’s business operations and maintenance facility and a 186-panel system at the Dr. Myron Wentz Science Center. Renewable energy produced by both rooftop solar systems will significantly reduce electricity costs in the buildings. 

The installation at the business operations and maintenance facility will generate 55.68 kilowatts of electricity at peak performance (kWp) and provide more than 68 percent of the building’s energy needs. And, during times of excess production, such as weekends, energy can be sold back to Naperville’s utility company.

The Wentz Science Center is used round the clock, requiring electric power throughout the four-story, 125,000-square-foot building and its many laboratories, classrooms, meeting rooms, offices and student gathering spaces. The center’s 59.52 kWp solar system will generate nearly 4 percent of the building’s large energy demand. 

The College is investing in sustainability projects to improve energy savings and to create a real-life campus lab. These opportunities allow students to learn about solar panel technology, along with recycling, composting, prairie restoration, stormwater management and cost accounting for evaluating those projects.

Although these two solar installations are smaller than other arrays on campus, they will significantly reduce the amount of energy that’s consumed and offer a good payback. “Once the installs are complete, we will start seeing savings on our utility bills,” said Brittany Drummond, North Central’s sustainability coordinator. 

Costs associated with the installations are covered by a $50,000 City of Naperville Renewable Energy Grant and the College’s Cardinal Sustainability Fund—a portion of North Central’s unrestricted endowment that has been committed to sustainability projects.

Drummond is already looking ahead to additional campus solar projects. She has recruited students and faculty for their help and expertise, including some of the College’s newest faculty members. 

Erin Bergren, full-time visiting assistant professor of environmental studies, developed a solar energy-related class project for students in her fall term course: You and Your Environment.

“Using guidelines by the U.S. Department of Energy, students explored campus, scoping out viable building sites that should have solar panels on them,” said Bergren. “I want my students to look at the reality and impact of solar power and to justify their conclusions or recommendations.”

Of the 14 buildings they surveyed, students chose three best sites for future solar installations: Oesterle Library, Seager Residence Hall and Wentz Science Center. All three have flat roofs with no shadows and are high-energy users, making them ideal locations for solar projects. 

“What was interesting to me was the way students really focused their attention on the buildings students use most. Their input was entirely self-directed,” said Bergren. Their recommendations were presented to Drummond and the campus Sustainability Committee.

Frank Harwath, professor of engineering and director of the College's engineering programs, sees a variety of ways STEM programs can be involved in renewable energy projects like the College’s solar initiatives.

First, he said, “We need to assess their effectiveness, to understand better where we’re consuming power and how much power we’re actually saving. It’s a complex but solvable problem, and engineers and STEM disciplines like we offer at North Central can help make these assessments.”

Harwath is passionate about the strong sustainability and renewable resource themes throughout the College’s academic disciplines. “These are actually high-impact practices we talk about as an institution where opportunities grow organically,” he said.

Drummond regularly collaborates with faculty on a variety of sustainability-related projects. “I especially like projects with students who aren’t environmental studies-related majors,” said Drummond. “Recently, students in a communications class researched and presented a plan for promoting our largest solar installation. They learned about renewable energy and solar power, which they wouldn’t have experienced otherwise, and that was exciting for them and me.” 

Earlier solar installations at North Central College include solar thermal panels on the residence hall roof of New Hall. Installed December 2015, the panels contain 30 evacuated tubes that capture the sun’s energy and provide 30 percent of the energy needed to heat domestic water throughout the residence hall. The largest installation on campus features 1,632 solar PV panels at the Residence Hall/Recreation Center. Installed fall 2016, the 538.56 kW solar array provides 22 percent of the electricity for the building.