This paper presents the results of an interdisciplinary, cross-institutional collaboration between a university, a technical college, and an industrial partner in which students and professional engineers work together on a hands-on undergraduate research project investigating the effectiveness of different power electronic technologies for commercial solar panel installations. The engineering research aspect of the project aims to compare and analyze the effects of string inverts, DC optimizers, and micro-inverters on solar panel power generation under various operating conditions with the goal of optimizing both energy production and system economics. The opportunities, challenges, and expectations involved in building a collaborative working partnership between the technical college, university, and local industry are presented. Furthermore, methods for creating a successful working relationship between undergraduate students bridging two different disciplines (clean energy and electrical engineering) are discussed.
The motivation for this project stems from the pervasive expansion of renewable energy resources and development of new and innovative technologies allowing for increased efficiency, decreased development costs, improved reliability and overall system simplification. When installing solar panel systems, it is essential to determine the optimal inverter topology so that maximum power can be extracted. Outside of the solar panels themselves, the inverters are the most important constituent of the solar power system as they take the DC electrical power that the solar panels produce and converts it into AC power before injecting it onto the grid. The goal of this project is to compare the performance of solar panel arrays fitted with string inverters, DC power optimizers, and micro-inverters. Together students from both institutions spent twelve months studying, installing, and analyzing the various inverter technologies.
The result of this work is mutually beneficial to all parties involved. The university students gain practical, hands-on experience setting up and installing solar panels in the field while the students from the technical college benefit through learning about the theory behind the operation of the power electronic circuits. The faculty develop working relationships with industry experts and visa versa. This partnership advances academic and technical knowledge of all participants. The data gathered from this study is an immense asset for the engineers from industry as it helps them improve solar panel design and better understand customer needs.
This hands-on field experience not only stimulate students’ interest in learning both electronics and clean energy, but also help them recognize the importance and utility of interdisciplinary work. Moreover, the team-oriented nature of this project will foster students’ development of essential skills in team-work, communication, and time-management, serving them well into their professional careers.
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