Watt about the weather?
A study on different methods of sustainable energy generation threw up some surprises for two award-winning teenage Taranaki scientists.
New Plymouth Girls' High School Year 13 students Jessica Frost and Breanna Camden have discovered that solar panels are less efficient in hotter weather and are cheaper than they expected.
In their project Watt about the weather? the students investigated environmentally sustainable energy generation for use in electric vehicles (EVs) by monitoring various renewable energy generators at their school.
Specifically, they wanted to know what impact weather conditions had on solar panel efficiency and on vertical axis and horizontal axis wind turbines, and which options were most cost effective and energy efficient.
The students used a solar panel and two wind turbines in their investigation.
Jessica and Breanna's project developed from the school also entering Evolocity, an EV car building competition among schools.
A solar panel and two wind turbines were set up on the school whare at Tūhonohono marae by science teacher Athol Hockey and school ground staff for the project.
A separate meter for each recorded voltage, current, power and accumulative energy. The girls collected the data for seven weeks while also gathering New Plymouth weather data.
Breanna says they took the opportunity of the project suggested by Athol because they’re interested in sustainability and science. “With so much coverage and attention on climate change and sustainability it was a good project for us.”
Jessica had also previously studied solar panels, giving them a good foundation for the project.
The most interesting find for Breanna was that hotter temperatures reduced the energy output of solar panels.
“We thought hotter temperatures or weather would produce more energy,” she says.
Their research found that once the temperature went above 25 degrees the voltage output of a solar panel reduced, while the output current increased, meaning it became less efficient at generating energy.
Jessica says they would be interested in further study to see the extent of this effect, and whether changes to the sun’s angle on the solar panels due to differing seasons affected energy outputs.
Close-up of the set up of the generators used in the students' research.
Jessica says her key finding was learning that converting to solar panels is more affordable than she expected.
They investigated the feasibility of a family moving from sourcing their power from an electricity company compared to using either wind turbines or solar panels. Solar panels were by far the cheapest, half the cost of a horizontal wind turbine, and a quarter of the cost of a vertical wind turbine.
Their research estimated a home would need 29 panels to provide 3760kWh of electricity for a year, with the panels costing approximately $10,800. Jessica says depending how a homeowner financed their purchase of the panels, it would take between nine and 12 years to pay them off and start saving money on electricity.
The project has won the girls at least five science awards, including Best in Fair at the WITT Taranaki Science and Technology Fair and NIWA Environment prizes for the best environmental projects based on climate, freshwater or marine issues.
“I’m blown away by what these girls achieved. Obviously I gave them a bit of help in the beginning and was able to use some funding to get them set up, but once they got the opportunity they got stuck into it,” says Athol Hockey.
Breanna (left) and Jessica (right) holding the LogiCamms New Zealand trophy for Best Project in Years 11-13.
Athol, who’s enjoying using his Masters’ degree in Environmental Science in the classroom, says the project is ongoing and connects well with other work towards sustainable energy by 2050 in Taranaki.
“Hopefully it will carry on and become a bigger thing. Rather than it being a one-off project, we want to make a bigger impact, and also to get as many Māori students as possible involved as well.”
Athol says in the longer term others are able to continue learning from the project because its success has attracted donations from local people and companies.
A set of five solar panels was donated by local company Computer Sense, and Powerco donated an inverter for them, allowing the teachers and students to monitor generation of electricity more comprehensively than before.
“That is really helpful, more people can get educational benefit from it.”
There’s now even enough electricity being generated to charge some teachers’ EVs.
Breanna and Jessica are looking forward to studying science at Canterbury University. Jessica is interested in sustainable energy involving kinetics and Breanna is interested in methods where science can be used for sustainability.
About the project
Watt about the weather? is run by New Plymouth Girls' High School with Rivet Engineering, Egmont Industrial Supplies, Ecoinnovation, and Plug N Play Electronics, with support from the Taranaki Participatory Science Platform via Venture Taranaki.
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