Student Greens Let the Sunshine in for Campus EV Charging

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Apr 12, 2011

Student interns (and faculty advisor Kurt Lund) at San Diego's Sustainability Resource Center. (Jim Motavalli photo)
Student interns (and faculty advisor Kurt Lund) at San Diego's Sustainability Resource Center. (Jim Motavalli photo)

I walk into the Sustainability Resource Center on the sun-dappled campus of the University of California at San Diego. It would be like any other student hangout if not for the Kyocera and Borrego solar panels powering the direct-current lighting system (one of two such installations in the U.S.), the reclaimed and bamboo flooring, the certified ceiling tiles and eco-friendly paint on the walls. It's not surprising the center won LEED Gold status.

But it's easy to forget about all of that stuff when you meet the student interns, who are so enthusiastic that they practically finish each other's sentences. They've got a great idea, and they want to share it with the wider world. The campus tries to keep car traffic to a minimum, and that means I negotiated the quads in a golf-cart-like electric vehicle, one of 278 (147 neighborhood EVs and 131 utility carts). San Diego has a pretty clean grid, but what if the carts charged from a 100 percent renewable source? The students are designing and building their own mobile solar array/EV charger that can recharge carts while it also serves to educate the student body about the potential of renewable energy.

The center is only a couple of years old, but it has hit the ground running. It has hosted an event offering local organic cuisine, hosted by the campus food coop (complete with videos on the evils of bottled water and a performance by the Skavolutionary Orchestra singing "Breaking the Plastic Habit.") And it's promoting the "Own Your Impact" campaign to get students to reduce their environmental footprints. Did I mention the campaign to convert used coffee grinds to biodiesel, the plan to store lab samples at room temperature to save on freezer electricity, or the trips to Thailand to promote water purification and hydro-electric power?

The students also landed a $10,000 ESW/SunEdison Green Island Grant to help them design their solar charger, one of the largest such grants awarded, says faculty advisor Kurt Lund. "We're researching photovoltaic (PV) options," says fourth-year environmental engineering student Lauren Rueda. "We're looking at organic PV [which uses electronics based on conductive organic polymers or small organic molecules, I'm told], because it will let us mold our charger into more organic shapes, including curves. This unit is going to be visible, in your face, and it's going to be mobile so we can move it from place to place."

Concentrix's solar installation in San Diego revolves to catch the sun. (Jim Motavalli photo)
Concentrix's solar installation in San Diego revolves to catch the sun. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The system is likely to be two kilowatts, about the size of home PV array, and operate with as much as 27 percent efficiency. A battery back-up system is also possible, says Eric Tran, a third-year environmental engineering major. Tran invoked something I've never heard of--water-based lithium-ion batteries--as "the most innovative." But I fear the cutting edge has left me behind, because I've never heard of organic PV cells, either.

The university's natural gas station, with a CNG Civic. (Jim Motavalli photo)
The university's natural gas station, with a CNG Civic. (Jim Motavalli photo)

"The idea is that our unit will be on wheels so we can bring it over to [nearby] Balboa Park and demonstrate clean power sources," said Hein Nguyen, a fourth-year mechanical engineer. It's going to fold up, too.

Of course, the students don't think their charger has to stay confined to San Diego--if it can be built affordably, a variation of it could be a "viable option" for third world locations, Nguyen said. They have something there: in Africa, where there is abundant sun but limited transportation options, it could be a great charger for the electric bikes and scooters that would vastly increase mobility. "This is the future," said Nguyen.

The solar charger won't be able to replace the grid. "We can't recharge every cart, but we can show that students are capable of producing something important," said Joseph Ocampo, a second-year psychology student who could be said to be minoring in the environment.

I gotta say, I've seen plenty of sustainable campuses in my day, but this one takes the cake. It's a center of algae-into-fuel research (spinning off a dozen companies from campus tech), hosts two megawatts of solar, a huge 2.8-megawatt fuel cell tying into waste methane, natural gas stations and wind turbines. I was fascinated by a powerful 5.75-kilowatt Concentrix concentrating solar installation, shown to me by building sustainability manager Dave Weil, that is exceeding its design output and will have EV chargers connected to it (five Nissan Leafs are on order). The unit revolves to catch as much as possible of San Diego's plentiful sun (which wasn't much on display during my visit).

The campus fleet includes 44 Toyota Priuses, 18 Ford Escape Hybrids, 30 biodiesel shuttle buses, and 14 natural gas service vehicles. One of them is pictured above--a Honda Civic--parked at the campus natural gas station (right near the planned location for the fuel cell). A parking garage has a huge "solar grove" from San Diego-based Envision Solar, with the electricity helping to green the campus grid. Here's Envision's president, Desmond Wheatley, showing off the parking garage solar:

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