UC Santa Cruz Engineering Department’s Remote Laboratory for Renewable Energy funded by the National Science Foundation

It is widely recognized that we are now moving beyond peak oil production and that the greenhouse gases we are generating by burning fossil fuels are leading to global warming. A major part of the solution to this problem will be the use of renewable energy. The goal of this project was to develop computer interfaces and new course curricula to provide UC Santa Cruz students in introductory renewable energy courses with an interactive, web-based laboratory using state-of-the-art photovoltaic systems and monitoring equipment. In this project, staff developed a web interface and learning modules for a photovoltaic test facility at the NASA Ames Research Center that allows students to control the azimuth and elevation of a tracking photovoltaic panel to optimize its power output based on real-time measurements of the panels current and voltage. This was the first on-line renewable energy laboratory that allows students to have a real-time, interactive experience in controlling a state-of-the art tracking photovoltaic panel. Over time, staff plan to add additional  photovoltaic cells that make use of nanotechnology, such as quantum wires and dots which will allow students to compare their performance to commercial technology, enhancing the infrastructure for research and education in renewable energy.

The evaluation study was designed to gather formative data from a set of pilot scenarios on both implementation and learning outcomes to refine the modules and the user interface with NASA Ames. Learning outcomes were for students to understand the relationship between the measured environmental factors, such as weather and solar irradiance, on the electrical power that can be generated with a tracking solar panel. Students success with using the facility was determined by comparing the power they are able to generate with the maximum power that can be obtained under the current ambient weather conditions. Through measurements of the daily solar energy that is available and the solar panel conversion efficiency, the students determined the number of panels, and hence the cost, that will be required to meet the daily residential energy requirement in their homes.