The three solar arrays owned by Culver Academies are considered a working laboratory for students and instructors. Since late December 2018, the panels have been providing real-time information on how many kilowatt hours each array produces, the peak days of each month, and the peak times of each day.
But “working laboratory” also means that four times each year, the solar arrays need to be adjusted to take advantage of the sun’s changing position each season. On Tuesday, the task fell to Culver Girls Academy Sustainability Chair Aliyah Elfar (Newburgh, Indiana) and science instructor Xenia Czifrik.
The adjustment is just a few degrees from fall to winter. They moved the panels from 37 to 45 degrees, Czifrik said. A special meter can be attached to each array to indicate the angle as it is changed. The panels are tilted at 37 degrees during the spring and fall. The winter adjustment is 8 degrees steeper. But the summer tilt drops the panels almost flat at 12 degrees, Czifrik said, because the sun is almost directly overhead May through August.
There is no magic to the four times per year formula. Czifrik said that it is possible to change the angles of the panels more frequently to maximize the exposure. The volunteers are simply following the manufacturers’ recommendations right now. Doing a study to figure how frequently and how many degrees would make an interesting student project, she added.
Other than the adjustments, the solar panels and inverters, which convert the power from direct to alternating current, have been maintenance free, she added. Each panel carries a 25-year warranty but are expected to last well-beyond that. Each array consists of 32 solar panels. The power is fed into the Academies’ “main loop,” a circuit that runs about 40 buildings, including Fleet Gym, the Lay Dining Hall, and all the academic buildings, dorms, and barracks located around the quad and the north end of campus.
Information available to classes include:
- The arrays produced more than 3,000 kilowatt hours, enough to run three medium-sized homes, in April.
- In January, even with the polar vortex, the arrays produced more than 1,500 kw hours.
- On May 1, the arrays produced 75.4 kw hours (two-to-three homes for a day), reaching a peak power of 16.9 kw at 4:15 p.m.
Elfar said she is continuing to refine an existing plan that would increase the number of solar arrays from three to 53. That would would increase energy production to 500 kilowatts. The new panels would be installed next to the three in the Academies’ wellfield directly south of the Sarge Hudson Pasture on Indiana 10. If approved, it would become part of the Academies’ long-range facilities plan, she said.
A 500-kilowatt solar farm is estimated to generate enough electricity to power 46 medium-sized homes. The carbon offset is estimated at 670 tons, the equivalent of 78 passenger vehicles. Because of the large number, the new arrays would stay in a fixed position.