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IU Bloomington Physical Plant invests in innovative solar panels

Mar. 5, 2015

The Central Heating Plant -- the lifeline for the IU Bloomington Physical Plant's utilities division, servicing more than 12 million square feet of building space with steam heat -- has added innovative, energy-efficient technology to its list.   

The plant recently installed a set of 10 experimental photovoltaic solar thermal panels that went into operation Feb. 2. The panels were purchased from SolarZentrum, a renewable energy company in Osgood, Ind.

Solar panels

IU's Central Heating Plant installed a set of 10 experimental photovoltaic solar thermal panels that went into operation Feb. 2. | PHOTO BY KELSEY THARP

The panels’ job is to convert solar beams into electricity and collect thermal heat, allowing the Central Heating Plant to utilize more environmentally friendly energy.

The new system differs from regular solar panels by combining photovoltaic and solar thermal collection into one functional structure. The photovoltaic part of the panel is responsible for producing electricity. But, as a panel absorbs rays of sunlight, its circuits can overheat and cause losses in efficiency.

These new panels have a solar thermal element that cools down the photovoltaic cell so it retains its full heat absorption capability. The thermal element collects the heat from the panel by pumping glycol, a cooling liquid, behind the panel and transferring the heat to the plant.

The installation of the panels is a great addition to the Utilities Division’s renewable energy resources at the Central Heating Plant, said assistant director for utilities Mark Menefee. "These panels are a new and unique innovation, and are a good idea."

The new panels also help the Central Heating Plant save money and reduce carbon emissions. Relying on solar thermal heat produced from the panels decreases the amount of coal and gas used for heating, therefore decreasing carbon byproducts and making the plant more energy efficient.

The new panels are being tested against three other installations of regular solar panels on campus: Tulip Tree Apartments, Briscoe residence center and the IMU. Testing against a control group allows the Central Heating Plant to have confidence in data provided by the new panels -- data that could eventually justify a larger system for campus.

Some energy savings are already being realized, though the panels' true potential will be on display during the summer when sunlight is at its peak, Menefee said.

Interested in seeing the panels at work? Check out a live online dashboard.

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