ABQ event gives solar its day in the sun

·11 min read

Jul. 2—A new mobile solar display will soon visit schools across New Mexico to educate K-12 students about the many ways people can harness the sun to power and heat their homes.

Dubbed the "SunChaser," the trailer-mounted display offers a compact, walk-in classroom on wheels for students to learn first hand about everything from solar-electric generation and back-up battery storage to sun-powered heating and cooking systems.

Students from the New Mexico Institute for Mining and Technology in Socorro designed the entire structure. And nearly two dozen seniors from ACE Leadership High School in Albuquerque built it over the past year, creating a miniature model home that runs completely on solar energy, said NM Tech Mechanical Engineering Professor Ashok Ghosh.

"It's a mobile learning system for schools and towns around the state, including tribal communities," Ghosh told the Journal. "It will go wherever it's wanted to teach about solar technology and renewable energy."

In between its travels, the SunChaser will be parked at the Explora Science Center and Children's Museum in Albuquerque as a permanent exhibition.

It's still a work in progress. NM Tech students expect to complete additional work on the water-heating and electrical-wiring systems over the next year, adding sensors to monitor performance and a computer loaded with learning curriculum for teachers and students to conduct educational projects.

But the basic structure was on display for the first time at this year's Solar Fiesta — an annual event organized by the New Mexico Solar Energy Association since 1998. The all-day event took place at the University of New Mexico on June 24. Hundreds of people toured exhibits showcasing solar ovens, a solar-powered boat and an electric racing car — both built by UNM engineering students — and numerous other displays and information booths run by local solar companies and nonprofit organizations.

More than a dozen electric vehicles were also onsite, including an electric-powered motorcycle.

It's the first Solar Fiesta to take place since 2019, following a two-year hiatus caused by the pandemic. And it marked a turning point for the solar association, which launched in 1972 and is now celebrating its 50-year anniversary.

In fact, the Solar Fiesta itself provided a celebratory culmination to the American Solar Energy Society's 51st Annual National Solar Conference, a four-day event that, for the first time in 24 years, was held in Albuquerque at the UNM Student Union Building.

The conference put New Mexico and the solar association, or NMSEA, at the forefront of a robust, national-level discussion about renewable energy development, with industry representatives and professionals from throughout the U.S. and Canada — and from distant countries like Bangladesh, Nepal, Nigeria and South Africa — converging on Albuquerque for a week-long event.

Renewable energy, equitable transition

The Solar Energy Society, or ASES, chose Albuquerque for this year's conference to both commemorate the local solar association's 50th anniversary, and to recognize New Mexico's progress in transitioning to renewable energy, said ASES Executive Director Carly Rixham.

"The New Mexico association is one of 42 state and regional ASES chapters across the U.S.," Rixham told the Journal. "This state has great solar potential, and it also has good, strong legislation in place to promote renewable energy."

More than 450 people participated in the conference — about 350 in person and the rest online — including energy experts, university researchers and nonprofit leaders, plus executives from the U.S. Department of Energy and Sandia National Laboratories.

ASES, which originally formed in 1954, saw its membership balloon over the past year, jumping from about 4,600 members in June 2021 to nearly 13,500 this year. The expansion reflects mushrooming interest in national and international efforts to decarbonize the global economy as climate change intensifies, Rixham said

"We need to get to 100% renewable energy as soon as possible to avert a climate crisis, which is already upon us," she said.

The conference itself went far beyond solar energy to encompass the overall energy transformation currently underway in the U.S. and elsewhere. It covered everything from clean transportation, energy efficiency, and eliminating the carbon footprint of commercial buildings to public policy and educational programs.

This year, ASES also introduced the theme of "energy transition with economic justice" as a central focus for discussion. Panel presentations highlighted the environmental damage from fossil fuels that disproportionately affects minority and low-income communities. And participants discussed strategies to help those same communities transition to renewable resources, and to mitigate the economic impact of shutting down coal plants and other carbon-based industrial operations.

"This conference really aimed to shine a light on all that," Rixham said. "That's critical, because the transition to renewable energy is inevitable, but an equitable transition is not inevitable."

Education at the forefront

At its core, however, the solar conference and the accompanying Solar Fiesta focused primarily on education. Those annual events are all about enriching the knowledge and experience of people already involved in renewable energy, while inspiring younger generations and the community in general to get involved, Rixham said.

"The conference facilitates a real exchange and sharing of ideas," she said. "Education and building community is at the foundation."

Many conference presentations focused specifically on strategies to reach out to students at all levels to engage them in the issues of climate change and clean energy through hands-on learning that can potentially motivate them to embrace science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, education.

One program, for example — California-based We Share Solar — offered a unique educational approach at the conference. The program enables middle and high school students across the U.S. to directly build a compact solar system that, once finished, is shipped to developing countries to provide electricity to schools that currently operate without lights or electric appliances.

To date, about 37,000 students have participated in nearly 700 team projects around the nation. They've collectively built nearly 900 compact solar systems, or "solar suitcases," that are now lighting up hundreds of schools in Central and South America, East Africa, the Caribbean and the Philippines, said program co-founder Hal Aronson.

"The program allows kids in the U.S. to actually build systems that get installed in schools overseas," Aronson told conference participants. "It's an opportunity for students to work together on projects that can empower and educate them while raising their interest in STEM."

The nonprofit provides all the tools needed to build a 12-volt DC standalone system that fits into a suitcase for shipment to community organizations overseas. Those groups, in turn, work with local students to install the systems at their own schools.

The kit includes a full educational curriculum for students to assemble the solar suitcase, providing real-world experience that in the process teaches them about global energy poverty, basic electricity, solar energy and engineering. In return, solar-suitcase recipients share stories and photos of overseas beneficiaries for students here to see the full impact of their work.

We Share Solar's approach engages the "heads, hands and hearts" of students, said program co-founder Gigi Goldman.

"It makes all the difference in the world for students to have a compelling reason to learn and understand why STEM is important," Goldman said. "Having a purpose draws in students who might otherwise never engage. That's especially true for girls and minorities."

And by embracing the issues of climate change and renewable energy through direct action, educators can help offset feelings of anxiety and helplessness about the future that many youngsters experience, Aronson said.

"We have a real problem today in education," Aronson said. "Students are overwhelmed and anxious about climate change, and yet they're expected to go to school and sit in classrooms to learn about subjects they believe may only be useful in five or ten years, which makes it irrelevant for them and hard to focus. Kids are wondering if the world is going to end, and that leads to feelings of despair and futility, which tunes them out."

Engaging NM students

NMSEA's new SunChaser mobile classroom integrates all those educational elements and strategies to benefit New Mexico students and local communities, said Brad Humble, the professor at ACE Leadership High School who led the ACE SunChaser construction project that included 22 students.

"This was a senior class project," Humble told the Journal. "The students spent all year working on it. ... They did all the construction — we taught them and supported them — but they did it."

That included classroom learning about solar energy, photovoltaics, solar-based water heating systems and more, Humble said. Then the students put that STEM-based learning directly to work on the SunChaser, gaining direct experience in everything from welding, carpentry and sheet metal work to project management and reading and applying blueprints.

Working as a team and communicating with one another about problems and challenges, such as supply-chain issues created by the pandemic, greatly added to the learning experience.

"All the windows we ordered came in damaged, and the students had to physically repair them," Humble said. "Apart from construction skills, they learned the deeper stuff, like how to communicate and what to do when something isn't going right. ... Those things help build self confidence, and that's tremendously positive for youth."

For Humble, however, the biggest benefit was exposure to real-world issues, technology, and new career options.

"It makes them aware that these technologies exist, and that there's a whole world out there with employment possibilities that they never knew existed," Humble said.

Solar evolution

In some ways, the SunChaser project reflects NMSEA's continuing evolution after 50 years of advocacy. The organization has grown from a small grouping of solar enthusiasts and researchers in its early years that focused mostly on passive solar energy — such as water heating systems and solar ovens — to encompass educational programs and outreach that teach about and promote modern systems and renewable technologies in general.

The new mobile classroom, for example, is actually a second-generation version of NMSEA's original SunChaser, which was built by association volunteers in the late 1990s and traveled to schools and community events around the state for about ten years. That old model is now in disrepair, giving rise to the new one, which the student designers at NM Tech have dubbed "SunChaser 2k20."

NM Tech doctoral student Gabriel Maestas said the 2k20 version fuses past knowledge about passive solar and early photovoltaics with today's modern capabilities.

"Since the 1990s, technological innovation has led to great improvements in renewables, especially in solar energy," Maestas wrote in the latest edition of ASES' quarterly publication Solar Today. "The new SunChaser has greater capabilities and is more representative of modern renewable technology while still displaying the pertinent heritage methods."

And rather than NMSEA professional volunteers building it, this one was designed and constructed by high school and college students, reflecting the association"s efforts to double-down on outreach to younger generations, said NM Tech professor Ghosh, who is also NMSEA's current president.

"The whole purpose of everything we do is to make the community more knowledgeable and aware of everything going on," Ghosh told the Journal. "Education and outreach is a huge component, with a special focus on youngsters to make sure the next generation is properly trained."

The organization has grown and expanded its activities over the years. Since the mid-2000s, for example, it's been instrumental in lobbying for pro-renewable legislation, such as the state's ongoing solar and wind tax credits.

It currently has more than 200 active members, with local chapters in most areas of the state.

The Solar Fiesta provides an annual opportunity to directly interact with the local community, said Rose Marie Kern, an NMSEA life time member and past president who in previous years organized and ran the event.

Kern wrote "The Solar Chef," a book with more than 400 southwestern recipes for solar cooking, which she teaches about through UNM Continuing Education and through the Bernalillo County Agricultural Extension Service. At this year's Fiesta, she ran a booth that displayed small and large solar ovens with onsite cooking demonstrations that included everything from lasagna, muffins and brownies to corn bread and carne adovada.

"The organization has changed a lot over the years, but the central purpose remains the same — to teach people about all things solar," Kern told the Journal. "At the Fiesta, people can walk through all the exhibits and information booths to see solar being used in dozens of ways and get ideas about how they can use it in their own daily lives."