Solar Stations Put a Charge into UT Campus

Sol Design Lab creator Beth Ferguson, and UT sculpture department instructor Rick Mansfield assemble the upright poles on the steel base for one of two solar charging stations scheduled to be installed at UT at the end of May. Photo courtesy of Beth Ferguson.

Sol Design Lab creator Beth Ferguson, and UT sculpture department instructor Rick Mansfield assemble the upright poles on the steel base for one of two solar charging stations scheduled to be installed at UT at the end of May. Photo courtesy of Sol Design Lab.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the uses for the project first grant from the Green Fee Committee. That grant was used for station rental, building two stations, and running workshops.

By Shelby Isbell
For Reporting Texas

Within a few weeks, an idea born from a class assignment will come to fruition when two solar charging stations begin offering students at the University of Texas at Austin a shady, off-the-grid spot to recharge their electronics.

UT alumni Eric Swanson and Austin Jorn and current student Megan Archer came up with the idea of promoting solar energy on campus in 2010.

“Most people are aware that solar power exists, but it’s in places that are not tangible to the public,” Archer said. “We wanted something that was innovative and thought-provoking.”

With the help of a UT graduate who builds solar charging stations across the nation, they’re about to see the idea take shape.

Rewind to four years ago: Archer, Swanson and Jorn began working together after being assigned a group project in their environmental science class because of a shared interest in solar energy.

They devised a proposal to install solar panels on campus buildings, according to Archer.

“At first, it just felt like another class project everyone dreaded, but it quickly turned into something we cared about and wanted to make happen,” said Swanson, who graduated in December 2012. Like the other team members, his major was environmental science.

After the idea was bogged down by administrative obstacles, a professor suggested they think about working with Beth Ferguson, a 2009 UT graduate whose San Francisco-based company develops solar charging stations, Archer said.

“After having a few meetings with Beth, we knew that this approach was the right one,” she said.

With Ferguson’s help, the students wrote a proposal for a grant from the Green Fee Committee, which collects $5 per student each semester and gives grants for environmental service projects at UT Austin.

The committee awarded them $62,310 to rent one solar charging station, build two stations and run student solar design workshops, according to Karen Blaney, director of the Campus Environmental Center.

Blaney connected them with the Science Undergraduate Research Group (SURGe), a UT student organization, which received another $75,000 from the committee.

In total, the committee has awarded $137,310 to rent one solar charging station for two years, build two stations and run workshops, Ferguson said.

“Without the work of people who got involved with the project after we received the grant, we would not be seeing such an impact as we have these last two years of the project,” said Archer, who plans to graduate in May 2015.

Jorn, a 2013 alum, echoed Archer.

“Texas has so much opportunity to utilize solar energy, not only on a large scale, but on small, adaptable levels,” Jorn said. “This project helped place the practical use of solar into the minds of thousands of people.”

The SolarPump at BikeTexas in Austin is one of the five solar charging stations Beth Ferguson and Dallas Swindle have designed prior to the new UT charging stations. Photo by Shelby Isbell.

The SolarPump at BikeTexas in Austin is one of the seven
solar charging stations Beth Ferguson and Dallas
Swindle have designed, including two stations soon to
be installed on the UT campus. Photo by Shelby Isbell.

The stations cost between $55,000 and $65,000 each.

Both stations will seat nine people under a roof of solar panels, Ferguson said. Data logging equipment will allow students and researchers to monitor energy production and use online. To make the educational value more visible, SURGe has proposed a new Green Fee grant to install a touchscreen computer and software that would enable undergraduate researchers to enter their field data into the system.

Each roof has three solar panels that produce 250 watts each, Ferguson said. By comparison, powering a typical household requires six to 20 solar panels, she said.

“With one station in one day, you could essentially power 50 cell phones, 10 iPads, 15 laptops or five electric bikes,” Ferguson said.

Ferguson and Dallas Swindle, her design partner at Sol Design Lab, have designed seven solar charging stations for festivals, cities, universities and companies across the nation and in Denmark, Ferguson said.

In 2009, South by Southwest commissioned Ferguson to build three solar charging stations, or SolarPumps, for the festival. SXSW has continued to rent at least one SolarPump every year from Sol Design Lab. This year, the Sierra Club rented a SolarPump that charged 2,000 to 2,500 phones over the nine-day festival, according to Cristina Fisher, who works on special projects for SXSW.

Ferguson is working with New York City emergency officials on a solar charging station that would become a backup source of electricity in a crisis such as Hurricane Sandy.

The solar charging stations at UT Austin will be installed at the Perry-Castañeda Library plaza and in front of the Department of Art and Art History on San Jacinto and 23rd streets. The stations are scheduled to be installed in late May or early June.


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