Auburn officials help research, monitor first solar power system to be installed on a public building in the state

AUBURN – Researchers with Auburn University’s Space Research Institute have played an integral role in installing a solar power system at Lee County’s T.K. Davis Justice Center, the first public building in the state to be outfitted with such a system.

After months of research and analysis, the Auburn team managed the installation of a 16.56 kW grid-connected solar-powered system on the new addition to the center. The system will offset the energy costs of electricity the building uses.

“The Lee County Commission contracted with Auburn University to procure and install the system, to develop and manage a Web site and to conduct systems analysis and modeling,” said Henry Brandhorst, director of Auburn’s Space Research Institute. “We want to show that solar power is successful and to have others invest in it.”

The photovoltaic power system at the justice center utilizes 72 of the highest-efficiency solar panels currently available on the market, with eight of the panels mounted to a pole on the ground and the rest of the panels mounted on the center’s roof. The system can withstand hurricane force winds up to 110 miles-per-hour and is certified for use on rubber roofs.

Brandhorst and his team spent months designing the system and reviewing site constraints including the center’s roof to determine which portion received the most sunlight throughout the year as the best location for the panels to ensure maximum efficiency. Using models based on 30 to 40 years of weather data for the east Alabama area, he said the team was able to predict the system’s performance.

With the system now up and running, the institute’s researchers are now collecting information from the site including wind speed, actual temperature and how bright the sunshine is. They are comparing the actual data they receive from the system to the information previously generated by the models.

“This gives us a way to make better models and to show people what a cost benefit solar power is,” Brandhorst said. “We can do modeling for residences and show people the amount of power they have to generate until the power becomes free.”

Solar power is a renewable resource and because sunlight is “free,” the cost of this “fuel” is zero. The major costs associated with the project included the purchase of the photovoltaic panels and the electrical inverter equipment to convert the direct current, or DC, electricity from the solar panel into the alternating current, or AC, that is used in the particular loads in the center.

“Every amount of power that we generate is power they don’t need from the grid,” Brandhorst said. And, if the center does not use all the power generated by the solar system on a given day, then their power meter literally runs backwards. The system will eventually pay for itself once the cost savings from the solar panels equals the cost of equipment and installation.

“Solar power systems are costly but costs are continuing to decrease every year,” Brandhorst said.

The project took about eight days to install. Brandhorst said researchers will continue to monitor and collect data regarding the amount of solar power that is generated from the building and its efficiency. The public can view the building’s solar power output in real time on the Web at http://sri.auburn.edu/solardata.htm.

Funding for the project was provided by the Alabama Research Alliance, Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs Energy Division and the Lee County Commission.

Contact: Henry Brandhorst, (334) 844-5899 (brandhh@auburn.edu), or
Katie Wilder, (334) 844-9999 (wildeka@auburn.edu)