NORFOLK, Va. — In a lab at Old Dominion University, students and professors are helping design the future of electric power.
As the world burns the fossil fuels that produce most of today’s electricity, there is a growing movement toward renewable energy sources such as the sun — clean, widely accessible and inexhaustible.
The trick is figuring out how to tap it in an efficient and economical way.
That is Sylvain Marsillac’s consuming passion.
The week before Christmas, Marsillac, an associate professor of engineering at ODU, watched with barely contained excitement as a crane picked up a large stainless steel assembly and placed it gingerly onto the roof of Kaufman Hall, ODU’s engineering building.
It’s a solar tracking system. Over the next few weeks, 24 energy-producing photovoltaic solar panels will be bolted onto the frame. The motorized system is capable of tilting the panels to any angle, allowing them to follow the sun over the course of the day for maximum efficiency.
The solar array will include three types of panels. Inside the building, Marsillac’s research team will test each type to determine which produces the most electricity.
In addition, the researchers are testing new materials to develop the next generation of cheaper, more efficient panels.
It’s all made possible by more than $2 million in federal grants from the Department of Energy and the Defense Department.
Dominion Virginia Power, the state’s largest electric utility, has kicked in $50,000.
Down the road, ODU hopes to be one of as many as 50 sites around the state in a pilot solar-generation program planned by Dominion. Given the OK by state regulators in November, Dominion plans to erect solar arrays capable of generating 30 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 6,000 homes.
Marsillac said he’s convinced that as the solar industry grows, it will become economically competitive with traditional sources of electricity.
“The price goes down as you scale up,” he said. “The price of panels has gone down by a factor of three in the past 10 years. That’s huge.
“Long-term, it’s already viable.”