New solar facility to rise over Cramer Hall

Portland State has received $150,000 under the Energy and Water Development Appropriations Bill to fund a Solar Photovoltaic Test Facility project.

The large-scale facility will be the first university-based solar test project with combined demonstration, educational and research uses.

The $150,000 total, half of what was originally requested, reflects a compromise figure from both the House and Senate.

“We’re hopeful that we’ll get additional funding to do the whole $300,000 package,” said, Carl Wamser, PSU chemist professor. “Additional funding may come from Bonneville Environmental Foundation, the Energy Trust of Oregon and maybe some other sources.”

Despite the cut in expected funding, Wamser said the facility will provide countless benefits to students.

“PSU students will get a chance to study the various systems and examine their comparative outputs and the effects of different conditions; this will be useful whether they are thinking of themselves as students, researchers or knowledgeable citizens and consumers of energy,” Wamser said.

The test facility will consist of a 9-15 kW solar array located atop Cramer Hall, including up to 12 solar panels and empty bays to add panels in the future, Wamser said.

“The different types of panels we’ll be using include simulated roofing materials, different versions of silicon and one system on a tracking mount – to follow the sun. We’ll also have a variety of inverters.”

The original concept for the array came about in the summer of 2003, in Wamser’s class on solar energy technology education. The new solar facility will not only provide study opportunities for students studying solar energy, but also those in architecture, engineering, environmental science and urban studies.

As a demonstration project, the facility will create a working solar energy project that will feed energy (about 15 kilowatts) into Cramer Hall. This represents a small percentage of Cramer’s total power need, but is an important part of Portland State’s work towards sustainability.

As an education project, the facility will provide students with hands-on experience. They will be able to see the solar panels in action, take readings, work with live information on a web site and compare the different technologies side-by-side.

As a research project, the array will showcase the actual implementation of solar technologies, allowing comparisons of different panels and their efficiency under different meteorological conditions, including Portland’s sometimes rainy or cloudy skies.

The expense of solar energy comes mostly from silicon. Silicon, a key component of solar cells, is difficult and expensive to prepare. It takes large amounts of heat and energy to melt the silicon and form ingots, and the process creates its own environmental problems.

“Clearly what’s needed are cheaper solar cells,” Wamser said. “In the classroom, my students are working on plastic solar cells. These use organic dyes as light absorbers, which then move electrons into inexpensive semiconductor particles of titanium oxide.”

“The initial research on plastic cells was done in Europe and Japan,” he continued. The hope is that silicon-based solar cells will be phased out in about a decade.”

 “This project allows Portland State to incorporate alternative energy sources from an operational standpoint, and helps to further our commitment to sustainable practices while creating new solar energy research opportunities for faculty, students and the community,” PSU President Daniel O. Bernstine said in a press release.

The bill now returns to the House and Senate for approval and then to President George Bush for his signature. Once the funding is available, Wamser estimates that the facility could be up and running in a few months.

Additional information about Portland State’s commitment to sustainability can be found at