The Mountain Times

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Form meets function in GMC’s new solar garage

Students at Green Mountain College recently completed a solar-powered garage that demonstrates an integrative design to optimize the performance of electric vehicles in cold weather climates like Vermont.


Twenty-one students in the College's Renewable Energy and Ecological Design (REED) block course last semester were charged with creating a charging station to house an electric vehicle for use by the school's working farm and the REED program. To that end, students built a garage featuring a 16 panel 3.86-kilowatt solar array and a fiberglass passive solar south-facing wall suitable for early-season germination of crops for the College's farm. They named the new structure Olwen Solar Garage, after the Welsh goddess of the sun.


"It's clear that oil is becoming increasingly expensive and that carbon based nonrenewable fuels are contributing to climate destabilization. This project will demonstrate that solar energy can be a less expensive and renewable fuel for cars," said associate professor of economics and environmental studies Dr. Steven Letendre, an energy expert and one of the course instructors. "In addition, cars that are connected to the grid can themselves become energy storage devices, potentially earning money for the owner."


The building is a mini power plant which consumes the power it produces while providing a platform for sustainable food production. Inside, the building is spacious and bright, with large a large multifunctional solar wall that provides heat, light, and shelving for food production.


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"Aesthetics were an important consideration in the design," said Courtney Heverly, a student who completed the course. "We feel like we've created a structure that's interesting on its own terms, but which also provides a meaningful function-powering a vehicle that can rely on its own energy source instead of being dependent on the power grid like most electric cars."


After an exhaustive collaborative design process, the class broke ground on Sept. 27, 2012.

Students worked closely with contractor mentors in the solar energy and design/build fields and did most of the labor themselves. "The building was designed and constructed in one semester," said Lucas Brown, assistant professor of environmental studies and the lead design-build instructor.


GMC received a $50,000 grant from Constellation Energy's "E2 Energy to Educate" program to build Olwen. The project was led by Brown, who has extensive experience in the sustainable design field, and Dr. Letendre, who has significant research experience in integrating battery and hybrid electric vehicles with the utility grid. The company's E2 grants support hands-on demonstration projects that enhance student understanding of science and technology needed to address energy issues.


"The cold weather in our region tends to make plug-in cars less efficient," said Brown. "We think this is a way to make plug-in technology more viable in our latitude. It is also unique because we included building integrated agriculture in the design."