UMass Boston News

Seeing the Light: Wheatley Hall Gets Solar Panels

Pamela Worth | October 31, 2011

The sunlight that shines on the fourth-floor roof of Wheatley Hall is now providing clean, renewable energy to the building, saving University of Massachusetts Boston an anticipated $10,000 in energy costs each year.

On October 12, 350 photovoltaic panels installed in three configurations on the Wheatley roof were wired into UMass Boston’s power grid, storing and transforming the energy in sunlight to provide power to the campus.

The Commonwealth of Massachusetts’ Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) and the Department of Energy Resources received federal funding for this project from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), as part of a statewide initiative to install solar panels on public buildings.

“All the equipment needed to put this into place was bought by ARRA funding,” says Holly Sutherland, manager of master plan and construction communications at UMass Boston; the funding was supplemented, she says, by clean renewable energy bonds (CREBs).

The funding was approved for use in 2010, which is when Sutherland says the university’s Facilities department began conducting studies of the campus to determine the best location for the installation. The fourth-floor roof of Wheatley Hall was chosen as the best location for its southern exposure, and its relative absence of what Sutherland terms “shade interference.” Wheatley Hall’s fourth-floor roof was replaced in 2006, and engineering analyses reported that it is structurally sound, watertight, and able to support the weight of the panels.

In the lobby of Wheatley Hall, students, faculty, staff, and visitors are now able to see how much energy the panels are generating through a readout device resembling an LCD touchscreen that monitors the installation.

Studying that screen over the last month were about thirty of Assistant Professor of Economics David Timmons’ undergraduate students from his Economics 345: Natural Resources and Sustainable Development course. Timmons was teaching a unit on renewable energy in the class – wind, hydro, solar, and biomass – and incorporated UMass Boston’s recent installation into the lesson.

“Real-world examples are good for the class,” he says. “And we had great access to project data: the cost of the installation, how much energy it’s expected to produce, how much electricity costs the university overall.”

Serendipitously, Timmons’ office in Wheatley Hall overlooks the installations of photovoltaic panels; his students have crowded in on one occasion to view them.

Timmons says that he hopes his class takes away a sense of the social and educational benefits of using solar power, in addition to the cost savings.

“The more installations like this get built, the more acceptable it becomes, and the costs [to install them] come down. Projects like these are funded so that solar becomes more viable for the average person, and the average business,” he explains.

Timmons says that he aims to show his students that the economics of renewable energy are more than financial benefits.

“You can’t put a dollar value on it, but it’s still important,” he says.

Sutherland is similarly excited by the possibilities the project opens up, pointing out that this is one of many steps into a broader exploration of the possibilities of using renewable energy on Columbia Point.

“This is just the beginning,” she says. “I’m sure we’re going to find other ways to do this.”

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