University of Iowa to tap sun’s power to fuel EVs

u-iowa-charge-stationThe University of Iowa is diving into renewable EV infrastructure with construction of a solar charging station set to begin in July.

The station, which will be completed at the end of April 2011, will have a 50 kW system. It will have 20 spaces for charging EVs with both 110 volt and 240 volt outlets.

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The station will be grid-tied, so that the electricity generated will go back into the grid when it is not being used to charge EVs.

One of the outlets on the station will be equipped with smart grid technology to monitor the net metering of that outlet’s energy flow.

The “car” used to measure the energy flow of this outlet will be a mobile battery pack capable of two-way flow monitoring, since it is not in the project scope to purchase a V2G capable EV, said the station’s head engineer Eric Foresman.

By testing the battery pack in different scenarios, supplying and pulling varying amounts of energy to and from the grid, students will simulate how a V2G capable vehicle would react to different levels of demand, said Foresman.

The university is planning on using the station for charging its own fleet initially, said director of the university’s Office of Sustainability Liz Christiansen.

It may be opened up to students, faculty, staff and the community in the future, said Christiansen, who drives a neighborhood electric vehicle, and would love to be able to charge it at work.

There are no price spikes, inflation, or shortages when you use the sun for fuel.
–Eric Foresman, Head Engineer for University of Iowa’s solar-charging station project

The university has eight electric vehicles used for facilities management, housing maintenance, grounds work and other jobs.

The university plans to expand its fleet in the future. It does not have a specific timeline for the expansion, but is committed to gradually expanding the fleet, said Christiansen.

One of the motivating factors for building the station is its impact on reducing the university’s carbon footprint, said Christiansen.

It will also provide opportunities for students in the engineering programs to learn how solar energy can work, she said.

“One of the real benefits of having a facility on campus is so that people who live and learn and research here can have access to the information such a facility would provide,” she said.

The student reaction to the station has been very positive, said Christiansen.

“People are really pleased that we’re moving on this,” she said, “Students are very interested in knowing that their campus is progressing towards sustainability.”

Several years ago the university announced it would like to build a charging station for its expanding fleet of EVs. Students were very happy about the announcement, but wanted the University to take the effort one step further by using solar energy to power the station, she said.

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“They said you’re not going far enough,” said Christiansen, “That’s what’s great about students, is that they challenge us.”

The university anticipates the project will cost $900,000. It will be funded in part by a $300,000 grant from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 through the Iowa Office of Energy Independence. The rest will come from the University of Iowa.

The university put together a project document in 2008 estimating it could save around $50,000 per year in fuel costs with the system size it is building. However, this would require the university to have enough EVs to use all of the electricity produced by the station.

It could save $5,520 a year by putting electricity back into the grid.

Although the savings from putting the electricity back into the grid are low, unpredictable prices for traditionally produced electricity make solar a smart and secure investment, said Foresman.

“There are no price spikes, inflation, or shortages when you use the sun for fuel,” he said.

Though the university will save some money by generating solar energy, the real motivating factor for building the station was not the amount of money it would save, but the hands-on learning experience it would provide for students, said Christiansen.

“The real driver was to have this technology here on campus and provide the opportunity for the new generation of critical thinkers and innovators,” she said.

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