A collaboration between UW-Madison students and officials to create a more sustainable campus has recently paid off with the installation of an array of solar panels on the roof of Gordon Dining and Event Center, boosting energy efficiency at the university’s largest dining hall.
Students from Helios, a student organization that aims to create renewable energy sources on campus, along with university officials from the Office of Sustainability, University Housing and Facilities Planning and Management have worked for over a year to create, test and implement solar panels on the roof of Gordon.
The solar panels are projected to produce 42,800 kilowatt hours of electricity a year, the equivalent energy use of five typical Wisconsin homes. This will contribute to powering Gordon daily but will not cover the entire cost of lighting and heating the building.
According to an online dashboard created by Sun Peak, the local construction company that installed the panels, the energy produced by the panels will also result in a reduction of nearly 54,000 ounces of carbon dioxide over the course of a year.
Sahil Verma, the president of Helios, said the inspiration for the panels came to him in February 2017 after a guest speaker on campus pitched a campaign to make UW-Madison renewable energy-oriented by 2030.
“I was in an energy class at the time that was discussing solar panels and how they are economically efficient,” Verma said. “I thought, ‘What if our campus was completely solar energy-powered?’”
Members of Helios began researching how a solar panel-powered building could be accomplished on campus and, with the help of university officials and local business partners, began testing ways to implement the idea.
Verma said one thing that helped the process run smoothly was that the students in Helios were treated as equal partners during the collaboration and weren’t seen as “kids.”
“We were taken seriously throughout the entire project, like any other individual [involved],” Verma said.
However, a challenge the student organization faced was finding funding for the project. Verma said after struggling to find a source of funding, the Green Fund agreed to finance the project.
The Green Fund is a program that supports student-run sustainability initiatives. The fund does not revolve or rely on return on investment.
Verma said the solar panels have a lifespan of 30 years, and over the course of that time they will pay for themselves. Every year the panels are expected to save the university $1,340 in energy costs.
In addition to creating a more sustainable campus space and saving the university money, Jimmy Huynh, a Helios member, said the goal of the project was to inspire UW-Madison students.
“By putting solar panels right above student’s heads, we are showing we have the resources on campus to move forward with sustainability projects, but we need students pushing for a greener campus,” Huynh said.
Verma agreed, saying Helios wanted to spread a positive awareness of renewable energy to students with the project.
Next year, Helios plans to start a new renewable energy project. Huynh said the student organization has looked into implementing solar-powered bus stop lights as well as a campus-wide switch to LED lighting.