Wyoming’s energy-based economy is faltering with increased fossil fuel regulations and dropping prices, but the University of Wyoming is taking steps to expand its renewable options.
The solar array outside of the Indoor Practice Facility is the most visible and recognized source of renewable energy. Originally built in 1995, the panels gradually fell into disrepair, said Frosty Selmer, deputy director of utilities management.
“Some were in pretty sad shape,” he said. “Some of the panels were broken. Every one of the inverters — which change the produced DC power into AC — was offline.”
A project, completed in 2015, replaced the old equipment for newer, more efficient panels. The 210 panels in the array produce nearly 53 kilowatts. The old panels started at 35 kilowatts and degraded through the years.
“The panels were also a whole lot cheaper,” Selmer said.
The total project cost was nearly $132,000, although UW did secure a grant from the Rocky Mountain Power Blue Sky program for about $76,000.
Selmer estimated the panels will take 11 years to pay themselves off. However, the panels are rated to last at least twice that long.
Selmer said a 5-kilowatt system could easily support an average household with gas heating. However, the university averages about 10,000 kilowatts, meaning only 0.5 percent its energy needs come from solar energy. UW is already looking into ways of adding more solar energy in the future.
“Right now, we’re planning our buildings to keep the south side of the roof clear,” he said.
All panels in Laramie are pointed south to catch the most light.
The UW Energy Innovation Center’s roof also supports a solar array with many uses including research, said Bruce Parkinson, director of the Center for Photoconversion and Catalysis.
“Right now, they’re in the grid, but we have a way to switch them out so we can generate hydrogen and take syngas, made from coal, and turn it into methanol,” he said.
There is enough space on the Innovation Center’s roof to install more panels in the future, which Parkinson said could be used to directly study the differences between current and new models.
While the current arrays are a good step in the renewable energy direction, Scott Kane, co-founder of Creative Energies Solar, said other institutions are far ahead of UW.
“UW compares poorly to the University of Utah, which has a couple of thousands of kilowatts,” he said. “We have 50 here. They’ve set a pretty high bar for what UW can do.”
While solar panels continue to gain appeal, the use of wind turbines on campus is less likely, said Carrick Eggleston, associate director of the Center for Photoconversion and Catalysis.
“(Wind turbines) are cheaper for the amount of energy you get, but that advantage only comes with the largest wind turbine,” he said. “Basically, the bigger you make the turbine, the more energy output you get.”
Finding space for large turbines would come with its own troubles. Solar panels can be more easily placed on new or possible existing structures.
Like large turbines, huge solar arrays in the range of thousands of kW provide the best energy efficiency, Selmer said.
“For the (Indoor Practice Facility) system, it cost about $2.49 a watt to construct,” he said. “With these 1,000 kW system, that cost goes down to $1 and is anticipated to drop to $.70 a watt.”
Even with the larger construction cost per watt, the panels on top of the Innovation Center are exceeding expectations, Parkinson said.
“This has been operating recently above specifications,” he said. “Part of it is, we’re at high altitude. There’s less filtering of sunlight from the atmosphere.”
Continued strides in technology make solar array plants more and more appealing, Eggleston said.
“I think there’s an opportunity,” he said.
“Wyoming is a great place for solar, and the (fossil fuel) crisis has now gotten to the point now, it starts to become more realistic to put in large utility-scale solar.”