The Embark Solar Demonstrator: Renewables Feels For Reals

Have you ever seen the huge ten thousand watt solar array on the facilities building at SFU’s Burnaby Campus? The bus goes right by it all day long. Most people have seen it but never noticed. Being engineering students with an interest in sustainability, we asked our peers if they’d noticed. We got a few blank stares and the occasional, ‘What’s solar power? Isn’t that in space or something?’. What our friends were telling us was that renewable energy is a totally alien concept in our culture. Now, we hear about renewables but only in the abstract. We don’t have songs about them. Solar power doesn’t have the same hold on our collective imagination as Justin Bieber or Justin Trudeau or Justin Timberlake. Solar power isn’t part of our cultural knowledge in the same way that cars and refrigerators are. This is a problem because all through our city, all through our home, our civilization runs on a dwindling supply of fossil fuels. This is a problem because, according to Forbes, last year solar power employed more people than in generating electricity through coal, gas and oil energy combined. This is a problem because when our cohort graduates we will make decisions about how to power our homes and factories. A possible solution to this problem is the Embark Solar Demonstrator.

Opening Ceremony of the Embark Solar Generator

The idea here is that the solution to global warming is as much a cultural puzzle as a technical one. Sacrifice is an impossible sell so we need a way to keep the party bumpin’ before the world burns. Tesla Motors has contributed not by asking anyone to sacrifice but rather by creating a better car. After a few years work, we are proud to unveil our Solar Demonstrator in the Embark Learning Garden. It is a small, but complete solar power system where a sign explains what each basic component is and how it works. A counter keeps track of how much electricity the system has produced and reports this to an accompanying website. You are welcome to peruse the system and get friendly with solar power. Go ahead and touch the solar panel. We’ve provided USB outlets so you can charge your phone and have sunshine in your pocket. And when you graduate you’ll have first hand, personal experience with renewable energy to inform your decisions when you’re deciding how to power your first house or factory or electric bike. The Solar Demonstrator shifts the concept of renewable energy into something that feels real. Once that happens you can’t stop the feeling.

For example, this summer a member of our group went to the Burning Man festival as part of a camp with a Victorian tea-room theme. They were asked to contribute some gasoline for the tea room’s generator. This was requested despite the fact that Burning Man has no ceiling in a zone that gets hammered with extreme sunlight all week long. So instead of gasoline, they brought two solar panels and kept the lights on for thirty people. Now that solar power feels real, the tea room’s organizers can’t stop the feeling and want solar power to run their camp indefinitely.

Solar Demonstrator team member Tomoe Yoshihara catching sun rays at Burning Man

The process of making the Solar Demonstrator was full of ups and downs. We originally wanted to have a grid-tied system that would export all of the solar electricity into the campus electrical grid. After several meetings with the campus facilities management, this turned out to be unfeasible. We did get some great batteries though, so we were able to go ahead with our plan B and build a solar power system that can function anywhere the sun shines. We also had a lot of painful trial and error building our electrical monitoring system. Our attempt at cost savings with cheap power meters blew up in our face and tore through our onboard Mini-computer. This happened a few times until we could track down the issue and find a solution, and then things started overheating. So it took a lot of tries to get things running reasonably well. But now we have technology that we can share with the campus community and potentially with other campuses and grade schools.

The Solar Demonstrator is a tool for prosthelytizing renewable energy and hope for the future. Renewable energy is an answer that's blowing in the wind. Renewable energy falls out of the sky and grows the food in our gardens. So renewable energy is in the air; it's in our blood and it's rushing toward us as an industry. The Solar Demonstrator helps us see these things. It has the potential to generate a lot more than electricity. By giving you a personal experience with renewable energy the Solar Demonstrator can generate a whole new reality. A reality where you have sunshine in your pocket. It’s something magical.



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