Students study effectiveness of solar panel placement

Contact: Deanne Puca
Photo of WMU student Steven Spannagel operating a scaled-down solar panel.

Steven Spannagel operates a scaled-down solar panel to track performance effects of modifications to the panel.

KALAMAZOO, Mich.—What are the effects of shade on solar panels and their best position to optimize energy output? Western Michigan University engineering students studied the placement of this technology in a project for Consumers Energy to help educate young people about the benefits, and limitations, of solar energy.

For their senior engineering design project, An Nguyen of Battle Creek, Blake Ryan of Jackson and Steven Spannagel of St. Charles built an interactive scaled-down solar generation garden to demonstrate the performance effects of modifications to its panel layout.

The students 3D printed from scratch most of the frame for the five rows of four solar panels each. They purchase small solar panels typically used for camping to create a portable representation of a solar garden.

Sponsored by Consumers Energy, the project will be used in K-12 classrooms in Kalamazoo-area schools, according to the project's advisor Dr. Pablo Gomez, WMU associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

"They are capturing and storing this information so people can see how much power is being generated and how placement of panels and factors such as shading affect the generation of electric power," says Gomez, adding that the station is hooked up to a tablet programmed to record and display in real time the amount of power stored. "Young students can actually see how effects such as sun irradiance and shading reduce the amount of power collected and by how much."

Besides irradiance and shading, tilt angle and spacing between panel arrays also affect the power output. The scaled-down station allows for the removal of panels and adjustment in the placement for an interactive experience.

One of the more challenging parts of the project was the careful soldering of the solar panels to the frame, explains Ryan, motioning to a box of rejected design ideas the team worked through until reaching their current design.

A former intern with Consumers Energy, Ryan will work for the company after graduation.

"It's important for people to understand how solar generation works. An actual-sized solar garden might seem to take up a lot of space. But this project shows the reason for that is because of the effects of shading and panels placement on output of power," he says.

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