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A solar-powered San Diego spring break


Solar Spring Break 2015

Professional Science Master's Solar Energy Engineering and Commercialization students install solar panels as part of the Solar Spring Break program in 2015. Photo courtesy of GRID Alternatives.

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February 17, 2016

This March 11 Arizona State University engineering students will be headed to San Diego for spring break. While that doesn’t sound unusual this time of year, they’re not only going for fun.

These students, earning a Professional Science Master’s (PSM) in Solar Energy Engineering and Commercialization (SEEC) from the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, are participating in Solar Spring Break, a program from GRID Alternatives where college students install solar panels in underserved communities.

Solar Spring Break gives low-income families access to renewable energy and its cost-saving benefits when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford or access it. Participating students get a first-hand experience in the fast-growing solar energy industry. The SEEC program is participating for the second year.

“It has become a legacy endeavor in our program,” said SEEC graduate student Tomasz Jasinski. “Everyone who went to the program says it’s so rewarding.”

Beginning on March 7 — spring break runs from March 6-13 — they’ll spend two days in training learning how to install a solar system.

“It’s going to be both exciting and educational,” said Aakash Bhansali, leader of the SEEC Solar Spring Break group. “We’ll be interacting with engineers, learning how things are done and getting the training to become a certified installer, though we won’t receive official certification. We like having hands-on experience and not just learning from books.”

The following two days they’ll install the system on one family’s house in the San Pasqual Indian Reservation outside of San Diego with equipment provided by GRID Alternatives.

SEEC graduate student Nicholas Fortenberry, who attended last year’s program in Atascadero, California, found the whole process of installing a solar system to be informative.

“I didn’t fully understand optimizing a solar module for maximizing power generation until I went on the trip,” Fortenberry said. “We learned about the design process from GRID Alternatives. We did site surveys. We did promotion for the organization. We installed and took part in the racking system, clamping systems, electrical wiring, the modules, inverters — everything.”

At the end of the week they’ll check the system, clean up and unveil it to the family.

The big draw of Solar Spring Break, which has spread by word of mouth to the 2016 students, is the rewarding experience of seeing the family’s electric meter roll back after the solar system is turned on.

“My favorite part was when we finally activated the system after everything was installed and wired,” Fortenberry said. “After turning it on, the electrical meter began to run backward as excess electricity from the solar system poured back into the grid, allowing the family we worked for to not only offset their own power use, but to put excess solar generated power into the grid for other people to use. Seeing the meter go back meant everything was working and our family was saving money and offsetting carbon emissions.”

Along with experiencing the small-scale, single-house solar system installation, PSM SEEC program manager Karen Dada set up a trip to check out a solar farm on their way to San Diego. Last year’s group went to the Topaz Solar Farm, one of the world’s largest solar farms, in the Carissa Plains in Central California and got to talk with their engineers.

The overall experience will be very educational for the PSM SEEC students, who study solar energy engineering, energy policy and project financing — an “MBA meets solar engineering” program as Jasinski describes it — in a program that can be completed in 12 months. And this isn’t the first time the students have traveled together. The PSM SEEC program includes a week-long energy policy seminar in Washington, D.C., to network with solar industry professionals.

It’s still important to unwind and recharge for the rest of the semester, so it won’t be all work and no play for the SEEC students. They’ll take a couple extra days to soak up at the beach, check out the sights in San Diego and let loose before they hit the books again on March 14.

Interested in applying for the Professional Science Master’s Solar Energy Engineering and Commercialization program? Applications are now being accepted for fall 2016 enrollment. Visit engineering.asu.edu/solar or contact Karen Dada (kdada@asu.edu) for more information.

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