Researchers Receive Grant to Develop Solar Sensing, Tracking System

Proposed project would benefit energy suppliers that utilize solar by allowing them to know in advance conditions that would impact their systems ability to produce electricity

Solar Energy UC Merced researchers are developing a system that will measure the amount of sunlight that reaches ground level where panels and concentrators used in solar energy systems collect light and heat to turn into electricity.

MERCED, CA— The sun never sets when it comes to advancing solar energy researchand technology at the University of California, Merced.

Even in the midst of winter, researchers are working on innovative projects that will improve the effectiveness and efficiency of solar power as a renewable energy source.

School of Engineering assistant professor Alberto Cerpahas received a $568,202 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a system that will measure and track the amount of solar irradiance (sunlight) that reaches ground level where photovoltaic panels and solar concentrators used in solar energy systems collect light and heat to turn into electricity.

The three-year grant, funded under the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, is for the project "MRI: Development of ASSIST: Affordable System for Solar Irradiance Sensing and Tracking." Cerpa, along with associate professor Carlos Coimbraand assistant professor Qinghua Guoare developing a system that will help make it easier for energy producers to determine the most optimal opportunities to use solar.

"We are excited that the National Science Foundation has funded this innovative project," said Samuel J. Traina, vice chancellor for research. "Professor Cerpa's proposal shows great promise and this grant will help him and his colleagues develop a much-needed solution that will greatly advance the field of solar energy."

Solar power systems can generate significant amounts of electricity on hot, cloudless summer days. But during winter, when weather conditions are more varied and cloud cover affects the amount of sunlight a photovoltaic cell collects, the amount of electricity that solar system will generate is less predictable on a day-to-day basis. That unpredictability, in turn, can hamper solar energy's cost-effectiveness. Energy suppliers that utilize solar would benefit by knowing in advance when their system is able to produce the amount of electricity to meet customers' needs and when to rely on other energy sources.

ASSIST will make solar forecastingmore precise and will enable electricity providers to better plan and manage solar generation systems within their electrical grids. Furthermore, the system will be developed and tested in California's Central Valley, an ideal location to develop solar energy because of the amount of sunlight the region receives during the year, particularly during summer months.

ASSIST will use a network of sensors that collects data on solar irradiance at ground levels. The sensors will measure and track cloud cover, aerosol content and the presence of gases such as water vapor and carbon dioxide — all of which can reduce the amount of sunlight a solar cell can collect — in the Earth's lower atmosphere and stratosphere.

Professor Alberto Cerpa School of Engineering assistant professor Alberto Cerpa.

Cerpa explained that ASSIST will work in conjunction with two existing solar observatories, located at UC Merced and UC Davis. What will make the proposed system affordable is that it combines the use of a small number of expensive and highly calibrated solar observatories with a larger number of inexpensive nodes that will collect and relay data. A major innovative aspect of ASSIST is that it will integrate stand-alone wireless global irradiance sensors with a new dome sensor, eliminating the need for devices with costly moving parts, such as automatic solar trackers.

ASSIST will enable engineers, computer and earth system scientists to quantify data at levels not yet seen – even with current state-of-the-art instruments used in solar observation research. If successful, ASSIST could be adopted by national and international observatory efforts such as the Solar and Wind Energy Resource Assessment (SWERA) project.

Additionally, the project will allow UC Merced faculty and students – at both undergraduate and graduate levels — in the campus' environmental engineering and electrical engineering and computer science programs to expand their knowledge and further critical researchskills as they work on issues of scientific and societal relevance.

Projects such as ASSIST illustrate UC Merced's continuing goal to create and develop renewable energy options and promote sustainability efforts that will have a lasting impact on California, the nation and the world.

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