MAREC gets grant to study solar energy in Michigan



The Michigan Energy Office has been awarded a $44,000 grant to the GVSU Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center to study solar energy system costs and improvements for more efficient use in Michigan’s climate.

Kim Walton, program director for MAREC, said some large solar energy systems installed in West Michigan are based on design criteria that come from other parts of the country, and may or may not be optimal for West Michigan.

“West Michigan is an area where very little solar research has been conducted,” she said. “Understanding how different factors work together can help installers of the solar systems design the most efficient systems and lower overall costs.”

She said the solar collection systems installed by corporations in Michigan tend to be the type that are flat on the roof.

“It captures the summer (solar) resources, but it pretty much ignores our whole winter resource,” she said. Snow tends to accumulate more easily on flatter panels, reducing their overall efficiency.

The grant will fund data collection over a one-year period. Walton will collect data from homes in the Muskegon-Oceana area that received renewable energy systems through a federal grant from Sustainable Energy Resources for Consumers in November 2011.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, SERC grants were made available under the ARRA stimulus act for projects to install and test a variety of technologies including solar electricity, wind energy generation, various hot water heating technologies, in-home energy monitors, heat pumps and cool roofs, among others.

The residential data MAREC can collect includes the type of technology used, mounting factors, costs for materials, labor, fees and permits.

Data will also be collected from photovoltaic panel test beds that were installed at MAREC. The test beds consist of PV panels with micro inverters configured to provide specific output data for solar panel angles and interaction of snow cover. The PV test beds are installed next to MAREC’s Solar Center, a space that houses solar equipment that is used for research and training in classes and other activities.

Walton said the test at the MAREC PV installation will involve placement of pairs of panels at different angles, and it will also study results of natural snow accumulation, compared to other panels where snow is not allowed to accumulate.

Walton said while many people assume PV solar energy panels aren’t very effective in Michigan, they actually produce more voltage under cooler temperatures than hot.

“On our bright, cold days, our systems will work at over 100 percent capacity,” said Walton.

If PV panels were erected here at an optimal angle, and in Miami at a similar optimal angle, 30 years of data have shown that “we actually get 87 percent of the solar resources Miami, Florida, does,” she added.

Walton said about 150 solar collection units were installed in Muskegon County, some of which are PV, but “a lot of it was solar thermal.”

Solar thermal collection, she said, “has kind of fallen by the wayside in popularity. So the return on investment is very, very good — even better than PV still, at this point.”

One type of solar thermal collector heats up air inside special panels, which is then pumped into a properly insulated home, providing 25 to 30 percent of the heat needed.

Another kind of solar thermal collector is evacuated tubes that capture heat and transfer it to non-toxic glycol that is pumped into the home, where the heat is transferred to the domestic hot water system.

“There has not been a lot of research done for Michigan, and Michigan is its own micro climate, for sure,” said Walton.

While the grant is funding for one year, Walton said she plans to continue to gather the data for the next several years.

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