BCIT researchers aim to make solar power mainstream

A worker helps assemble the support structure for the Energy Oasis, a new solar panel structure at BCIT that will be used to provide power to charging stations for electric vehicles. - MARIO BARTEL/NEWSLEADER
A worker helps assemble the support structure for the Energy Oasis, a new solar panel structure at BCIT that will be used to provide power to charging stations for electric vehicles.

Construction is underway on a new research project at B.C. Institute of Technology that could make it easier to use alternative energy sources like solar and wind.

Referred to as "sustainable intermittent sources," the challenge preventing them from being used more widely is that they're not consistent—the sun needs to be shining or the wind needs to be blowing and the less they do, the less power they produce.

At BCIT, the Energy OASIS (Open Access to Sustainable Intermittent Sources) Demonstration Project aims to help solve that problem by inventing a storage system for, in this case, solar power.

"It's kind of like having a water reservoir. We don't get a lot of rain this summer but we still have water, that's the idea," said BCIT spokesperson Dave Pinton. "Electricity is a lot harder to store and contain and maintain than water is. That's where the research component comes in."

Since May, a system of photovoltaic, or solar, panels has been under construction at parking lot No. 7 at BCIT's Burnaby campus, just west of Wayburne Drive. When completed, expected in late fall, they're expected to span the width of the lot.

The research and demonstration project will take the form of two charging stations for electric cars, said Pinton.

The stored solar power will turn them into "quick-charge" stations, capable of delivering a full charge in about 20 minutes compared to several hours for a regular charging station, and without impacting the main electrical grid system.

Following the experimentation and demonstration phase, the plan is that the public will be able to use the stations for their electric vehicles, sometime in late 2014.

Developed by BCIT's Group for Advanced Information Technology, the project's partners include BC Hydro, universities and senior governments.

Eventually, the project will be used to help teach students about newer energy storage systems.

Pinton added that the project will result in the loss of seven parking spaces, but vehicles will be able to park underneath the solar panels and the campus has a buffer of about 500 spots not used on a daily basis.

Such a system could also be used as a backup power source during emergencies. The research could ultimately help make solar and wind power more reliable, allowing them to be more easily integrated as a regular energy source.

"For solar and wind both, the storage is key because they are intermittent … This is trying to iron out those peaks and valleys."

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