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Bradley University is doubling down on solar energy thanks to a new federal research grant

Bradley University will use a federal grant to develop new solutions to solar energy storage challenges.

Bradley received a $950,000 federal grant from the National Institute of Standards and Technology as part of the spending package signed by President Biden on March 9.

David Zietlow, a mechanical engineering professor at Bradley University, said the money would go to fund a solar energy research lab.

The lab will be located in Bradley’s Center for Business and Engineering Convergence and will be used to train 32 students per year. The main goal will be to find ways to continuously generate energy from the sun.

“In a coal-fired power plant or a fossil fuel power plant, if you feed fuel into it, you have power, right? It’s like you can get continuous power,” Zietlow said. “But with solar, you can only get that power rating at noon, on a sunny day. So if it’s a cloudy day or it’s later, you won’t get as much power. So the goal of this lab is to take advantage of the intermittent solar energy source and find ways to provide continuous energy.”

Students will learn about the operation of photovoltaic cells used in solar panels and battery storage. They will also learn about backup systems such as gas turbines. Zietlow said gas turbines produce about half of coal-fired power plants’ carbon dioxide, making them more desirable as a backup option.

“It’s kind of a middle-of-the-road solution, but engineers can solve problems,” he said. “That’s why we look for solutions to problems. I believe that part of the solution will be an intermediate solution. Another thing that is a key part of this lab is replacing furnaces that use natural gas or oil and replacing them with heat pumps that use electricity.”

Solar energy is in demand in the Peoria area

Currently, there are batteries for storing solar energy, but few companies produce them. They are often too expensive for people who decide to switch to solar energy.

Benjamin Tiger, founder of Solar Panther in Peoria Heights, said one battery can cost $15,000 and only powers a home for about eight hours. He said that means people typically need four to five batteries in a single-family home. About 5% of its customers buy batteries.

Tiger said his company does about 500 roofing and solar projects a year. With the recent rise in energy costs, more and more people are making the switch. He said solar projects cost between $20,000 and $100,000.

He said people are expressing concerns about costs and whether they will get enough sunlight to power their homes.

“People think we don’t get a lot of sun here in Illinois compared to a state like California,” he said. “But we actually get a lot of sun, if your roof faces south, east or west, you’re in good shape. If you have a pitch facing north, it probably won’t get much sun.

Tiger said federal and state tax credits also encourage more people to buy solar panels.

He said people in the industry want to see improved batteries and solar panels built into roof shingles. However, one of the greatest needs today is a skilled workforce.

“We need people who know what they are doing,” he said. “And as the boomer generation, a large part of our workforce for the last 30 years, retires, we need younger people to take over and become more relevant.”

Fighting climate change

Zietlow said there will be a greater demand for solar people and battery people in the next decade. He said the work would be interdisciplinary.

“These will be training for chemistry, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering majors on integrating intermittent sources and ensuring reliable electricity,” he said.

The money will only be made available in September this year. Zietlow said they would have to wait for the equipment to be delivered. It anticipates that the program could begin in September 2025.

Zietlow said the main goal of the project is to fight climate change using renewable energy sources.

“It does make us greener, but I think the problem of global warming is a global problem,” he said. “Therefore, even if the United States reduces its carbon footprint, we must convince other countries to follow us.”

For example, Zietlow recalls how in the 1990s the United States and other countries switched from Freon to R134a refrigerants to stop ozone depletion. Zietlow said he worked on this as part of his Ph.D.

“All these countries came together, developed guidelines and worked together to limit or ban the use of certain ozone-absorbing refrigerants,” he said. “And the success is that the ozone layer is replenishing itself. It’s getting thicker, the ozone hole is getting smaller.”

Bradley is going solar

Bradley will also be using solar energy in the coming year. The university partners with Nexamp solar farms to power all campus buildings.

LeRoy Neilson, Bradley’s utility services manager, said the university will serve as the primary bank account. Residents and companies from the area can also get involved.

“It provides a financial benefit to the university and also helps contribute to overall sustainability and green energy efforts in the state of Illinois,” he said.

Bradley expects to save about $115,000 a year in energy costs. Energy from the photovoltaic farm goes directly to the grid and will be delivered to the university via the existing infrastructure.

They will still be connected to the main grid in case there are problems with the panels.

“It’s a complex system, but it uses diverse technology for different ways of generating electricity,” he said. “So we know that coal plants are being phased out. These are still nuclear power plants, natural gas power plants. However, the need for these types of facilities is becoming less and less as they are supplemented with solar and wind energy.”

The solar farm is still under construction, but Bradley will make the switch once it’s completed.