Senior design students bring floating solar to UCF retention pond

“Geoff meet Rubin, Rubin meet Geoff. You’re working together for your Senior Design project.”

It all started with an interest in the glamorous solar panel. Initially, Rubin York had the idea to heat water using the waste heat generated from solar panels. Geoffrey Gregory had the idea to create a novel solar phone charger. Professor Stresau, the Senior Design Coordinator, recognized the shared interest and introduced the two, and the team expanded thereafter.

Last week, the Senior Design team of five, Rubin York, Geoffrey Gregory, Rebecca Shea, William Rumplik, and Rudolph Jara, finally saw their plan transform from paper to a tangible reality when a 5KW floating solar array was installed in an on-campus retention pond. The pilot project, assuming a success, is expected to amount to a 900KW array at full scale, where the energy generated will add to the campus energy grid to completely offset the Bright House Stadium’s current energy usage. This offset is part of Sustainability Initiatives’ goal to reach 15% carbon neutrality by 2020 under the Climate Action Plan.

Following the team’s establishment, the floating solar project was passed on to them with the oversight of David Norvell, Assistant Vice President for Sustainability Initiatives. The group had a lot to prove in the project’s design concept; the floating solar array had to be physically realizable and safe, given its potential to move in the incidence of a hurricane or major change in water level.

Geoff Gregory counted the range of designs they had considered: “We had all of these design parameters and constraints that were put on our project and we were able to present the Office of Sustainability Initiatives these ranges of designs. Option one might be a design that meets the budgetary constraints and option four might be the most expensive but it looks the best. Out of all the options we originally had, the one we selected is the most aesthetically pleasing, engineering-sound, and robust. A few other designs we looked at were going to be made out of plywood and aluminum. I would say what we have now was the best option that UCF could have gone with.” While the choice resulted in being the most expensive option for the 5KW array, it is most affordable scaled at the full 900KW, approximately 200 times the size of the pilot. Despite this, the team managed to waive the largest cost of the project – the solar panels at $3,500 – by getting them all donated from REC Solar.

The task committed the team to working 20 hours a week on average, with some weeks as much as 40 hours. Regardless of this extensive collaboration time, the team remained respectful and motivated throughout the project’s extent. “One thing our professor had us do was a Senior Design boot camp. I learned so much. It was a one-day, two-hour Saturday event, and they had us complete a goals exercise. They gave us a paper that had a list of over fifty values on it like knowledge, family, communication, money, etc. We had to sort through it and choose which core values were most important to ourselves. We then had to look into the eyes of our team members and share with each other what our individual values are. There’s a difference between arguing for debating and arguing for fighting. By learning each other values, it allowed us to respectfully argue and debate all the time. But we never fought,” said Rubin York.

The sportsmanship surely paid off. The twenty solar panels are now afloat facing due south right outside of Bright House Stadium, pushed into the pond and installed manually by the team themselves. After all the time and effort put into the project, the group thinks on their great accomplishment in helping the university in its sustainable practices. Rebecca Shea commented, "It was hard work, but seeing our panels floating on the water at the end of the day was so rewarding, and definitely worth the numerous bug bites, bruises, and the sunburn I got. I cannot wait to see the full-scale array floating on the pond in the next few years."

Gregory reflected, “There are so many things that I’ve pulled away from this project. One being the ability to work with other engineers that are my age, that are interested in the same thing, and have just as much ambition and drive as I do. That has taught me a lot of lessons as far as communication goes. Additionally, I’ve realized how much it takes to implement a small scale system – how many phone calls you have to make, how many hoops you have to fly through, and how many hurdles have to jump over. It has given me a more realistic perspective on what it takes to get something done. From a larger perspective, I’ve realized how easy it is for young students, like us, to get solar on the ground. It is so exciting being in the solar industry knowing that it is about to hit the ground running in the next five or ten years. We’re graduating just in time for that to happen. My biggest takeaway is that perspective of this wave of renewable energy that’s about to happen and how close we are to riding it.”

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