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Alex Burke with the solar panels for his thesis.

MSES candidate develops innovative research on campus renewable energy choices for Ohio University

Sam Miller
December 12, 2016

Behind Building 22 on The Ridges, nine brand new solar panels are capturing the sun’s energy - all in part of one man’s determination: Alex Burke.

Burke was in his junior year at Ohio University when environmental studies made its way onto his radar. When it came time for him to schedule classes for spring semester, after spending the fall semester abroad, he noticed all of his classes focused on the environment and how humans interacted with it. He then stumbled onto the undergraduate environmental studies certificate and became hooked.

However, Burke’s interest in renewable energy came well before his junior year. During his freshman composition class, he wrote an extensive paper on renewable energy and it stimulated his interest. The paper made him realize that a transition to renewable energy was not as far-fetched as he had originally thought and would result in better care of the environment. This assignment also allowed Burke to see the larger underlying issues renewable energy could address.

“To me, the biggest issue humanity faces today is human-caused climate change and we need as many people on the front lines addressing those issues as possible,” Burke said.

Burke saw a huge challenge in bridging the gap between science and policy. As someone who was interested in the natural sciences and an excellent communicator, he realized it was a natural fit for him to try to tie the two components together.

After graduating from Ohio University in 2015 with a bachelor of science in chemistry, Burke enrolled in the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs’ Master’s of Science in Environmental Studies program. He was drawn by its interdisciplinary approach, which allows a much more holistic approach to developing environmental solutions.

“In the world today, we face so many complex issues and problems that if you try to take a narrow focus to address those problems, then you’re going to end up with a narrow solution,” Burke said. “We’ve seen a lot of those narrow solutions yielding the results of environmental quality we see today. It is extremely important to bring in all these different disciplines so you can really start to address the problems at their root.”

One of the complex issues that would benefit from a comprehensive approach, Burke noticed, was Ohio University’s energy use and how that energy was produced. The issue resonated with him so much that he decided to make it the focus of his graduate thesis.

In “An Integrated Toolbox for Assessing the Viability of Solar PV at Ohio University,” Burke incorporates financial assessment techniques, environmental sustainability techniques and social factors to determine if and how greater use of renewable energy could be beneficial to the University and campus community.

In the final results, Burke is comparing six different scenarios, four of which include solar photovoltaic (PV) cell installations and two based on the University’s current electricity purchasing agreement that includes some wind power. He is developing several indicators across financial, environmental and social parameters to identify optimal scenarios for the University. Additionally, Burke is conducting technical assessments to try to find where solar panels could best be placed on Ohio University’s campus as part of ongoing campus efforts to increase the proportion of energy generated from renewables.

To help answer these questions, Burke needed to deploy new solar panels. He thought it would be extremely interesting, as well as experimentally rigorous, to actually test energy generation models with real panels. However, the cost of the technology, as well the timeline for such a feat, seemed out of his grasp. He put the idea on the back burner until he was pulled into discussions with the University’s Office of Facilities Management and the Office of Sustainability.

Through these meetings, he learned that Ohio University was already planning to work with the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) on an assessment of solar PV like Burke’s proposed research. Based on their conversations, NREL and Facilities Management were comfortable with Burke providing a report using NREL’s software. He successfully proposed to Facilities Management that solar panels would be needed to conduct research and got them on board with the plan.

Solar panels

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

From there, Burke’s pipe dream started to become a reality with one hurdle left: funding. With the support of Senior Associate Vice President Joe Lalley, Facilities Management found room in its budget to purchase the panels from Athena Solar Panels, a locally based solar installer. While the funding from Facilities Management covered the bulk of the price tag, Burke was left to find other avenues to cover unexpected extra costs totaling nearly $800. Unable to cover the cost himself, he turned to GoFundMe.

Burke started the GoFundMe on September 7 and within a day exceeded his intentional goal. Overall, he raised about $1,000.

“The response was incredible. It was truly uplifting to see so many people willing to invest in a project that I saw as so vitally important,” Burke said.

Having finally reached his budget, Burke ordered all the necessary equipment and installed the panels in late October behind Building 22 at The Ridges. While the panels are directly plugged into and supporting the building’s power use, Burke’s main purpose for their location is a bit different.

“While the panels will be generating small amounts of electricity to the building, about five to 10 percent, what I saw as the real advantage of these solar panels are that they are pretty visible to everyone and offers a great location for workshops and education,” Burke said. “These installations are also adjustable for a different set of parameters orientated to them so they can be used for further research opportunities.”

At the end of his research, Burke said he wants to make a toolbox that can be handed over to someone at the University, or potentially other universities, to allow those individuals to scale the project upward. He also plans to make recommendations to the University based on his final research findings and help point administrators in a sustainable direction for future energy use.

“At the end of the day, a lot of credit for this project goes to the Voinovich School and members within the school because the possibility of this happening seemed limited to me when I entered the program. As it all happened, I was led in the right direction so many times by people within the school,” Burke said. “I think being part of this Environmental Studies program is what has allowed me to really spread my wings and do exactly what I wanted to do and I am so appreciative of that.”

Burke’s panels can be seen behind Building 22 on The Ridges and guidance on how to find them is available on this map. To see more photos of the panels, visit the Voinovich School’s flickr page.