UWM roof becomes solar energy lab

Thanks to a four-member partnership involving an assistant professor of electrical engineering, the fastest-growing form of alternative energy has debuted at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee (UWM).

Faculty Research

Dr. Adel Nasiri with his graduate students

Adel Nasiri and five members of his lab are behind the acquisition of 74 solar panels that were recently installed on the second-floor roof of Bolton Hall. The solar cells, called photovoltaics (PVs), produce 205 watts each, enough to eventually help meet the electricity needs of Bolton Hall, Nasiri hopes.

The Bolton Hall PV system is intended as a teaching resource and research project for students in the College of Engineering and Applied Science (CEAS). It includes industrial zinc bromidebatteries for storage of some of the energy generated and a real-time monitoring kiosk in the walkway between Bolton and the Union.

And since it has backing from We Energies, Wisconsin Focus on Energy, and the Wisconsin Department of Administration, some of the projects the students will test will be real-life energy issues, says Nasiri whose research interests include power electronics and electric drives and their applications in renewable energy.

Solar energy is collected as direct current (DC), and then converted to alternating current (AC) for use on the grid, the interconnected network that manages energy flow to the public. But demand fluctuates, making grid energy subject to supply problems. Solar energy is used to “fill in” when demand for electricity generated by conventional sources exceeds the supply.

The problem is, while PVs deliver most of their energy during the day, it’s not during the hours of highest demand – in the late afternoon. And storing energy is expensive. Nasiri’s lab will investigate whether the cost of storage would be lower than the cost of energy generation during peak times.  

“We wanted to convert that power from off-load [low demand] to peak load,” says Nasiri. “We hope to collect it early in the day and give it back later. Energy is more expensive late in the day because there is more demand. We are trying to determine if it’s economically feasible to store the energy and use it later.”

The Bolton Hall PV system may prove to be a self-sustaining model, says Nasiri. By modeling the generation of energy by the PVs, Nasiri’s students hope to find out how much of Bolton Hall’s late-afternoon demand can be met by the energy from the solar panels.

Lab members also will experiment with shifting and controlling power with the industrial electronics that allow different combinations of the grid, renewable generation and energy storage to determine how solar cells can support the grid in Milwaukee.

Next the lab will pursue the installation of a wind turbine in the parking lot of the USB building off Capitol Drive, which CEAS uses for extra research space.

Once built, it will be the largest urban wind turbine in Wisconsin. There is currently one at the MATC campus in Mequon.