NAU solar thermal project a new take on harnessing sun

This warehouse at the edge of the Northern Arizona University’s campus, home to surplus desks, computers and dressers, features solar panels across much of its south-facing exterior.

Their purpose: Keeping the contents warm through this city’s frigid winter months.

These six panels, measuring 24 feet wide by 8 feet tall, heat air drawn from inside or outside the building before it’s pumped inside.

This solar thermal system, installed in January, was the first of its kind at a U.S. university,NAU officials and the company that created it say.

About 15 percent of the sun’s energy hitting conventional solar panels is converted to energy. With solar thermal technology, that efficiency is almost 70 percent, according to Phoenix-based SolarThermiX.

With heating via natural gas a major expense, NAU is evaluating the system’s potential to reduce both costs and the school’s carbon footprint.

“NAU has plenty of opportunities to offset their electricity bill through either solar or wind, but there are not as many options to offset their natural gas use, which was a driving factor is this project,” said Ellen Vaughan, manager of NAU’s Office of Sustainability.

NAU will recoup the $10,000 cost in three to six years, she said.

“It has a really quick payback and provides renewable energy at a very cheap cost,” Vaughan said.

The return to environment: an estimated three metric tons of carbon dioxide kept out of the atmosphere annually.

Money for the installation came from the Green Fund, which comes from a $5 annual fee paid by students at the Flagstaff campus. Led by students, the fund provides grants for projects geared toward sustainability and improving the environment.

“Schools also get it,” said Michael Corridan, creator and co-founder of SolarThermiX. “They’re very much about sustainability, being living laboratories for this technology.”

Solar thermal also could work in places without access to utility grids, such as remote parts of the Navajo Nation, he said.

“If we can take this very effective solar technology to them, with some assistance, we’d be just thrilled to do some good in our own backyard,” Corridan said.

While there are no plans at present to add solar thermal elsewhere on campus, Vaughan noted that there are plenty of south-facing buildings with potential.

“One of the next steps for these panels is to have the engineering department, after they assess their efficiency, maybe look at the campus and do a feasibility study on where these panels can be placed on the rest of campus,” she said.

NAU, which signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment in 2007, won Arizona Forward’s 2015 Governor’s Award for Arizona’s Future this year for the solar thermal project.
“I want to be able to ride the momentum and continue doing awesome projects like this,” said Jessica Lazor, chairwoman of the Green Fund.

Vaughan said solar thermal is part of NAU’s path toward climate neutrality.

“Sometimes it takes someplace like a university to take that first step and risk on a project and then have the potential to potentially have this technology spread across not just other campuses but businesses and houses, on the reservation, anywhere to help displace natural gas use,” she said.