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Engineering Students Help San Diego Region Secure $154 Million in Solar Bonds

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Jan Kleissl (foreground), an assistant environmental engineering professor at UCSD, and Ph.D. mechanical engineering students Karl Olney and Michael Gollner (L to R) were instrumental in helping the San Diego region secure $154 million in bonds for solar panel installations. Click here to watch a video of Kleissl and his students.

San Diego, CA, November 3, 2009 - Engineering students at UC San Diego played a critical role in helping the university and the San Diego region secure a total of $154 million in federal bonds for solar installation projects. CleanTECH San Diego, a non-profit organization formed to accelerate San Diego as a world leader in the clean technology economy, tasked the students with streamlining the application process for the national Clean Renewable Energy Bonds (CREBs) program.

The bond allocations for the San Diego region went to a total of 192 projects submitted by San Diego municipalities, school districts, universities, and a water district. The CREBs program is part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (“ARRA”) through the Internal Revenue Service and provides public agencies with an opportunity to issue tax-credit bonds to finance renewable energy projects for public facilities. The public agencies do not have to pay the interest on the bonds because the bond holders receive a tax credit in lieu of an interest payment. The Internal Revenue Service received 997 applications requesting total allocations of more than $3 billion from state, regional, and local public agencies throughout the nation. The IRS allocated $800 million to 739 projects for public agencies throughout the nation. Overall, San Diego netted 19 percent of the total nationwide CREBs allocations.

UC San Diego will receive $15 million for 15 renewable energy projects, while the San DiegoUnified School District received allocations totaling $74 million for 111 projects, which is the largest number of projects to receive allocations for a single public agency in the nation.

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Michael Gollner, a UCSD Ph.D. mechanical engineering student, is one of four students who created an analytical tool to help the university and San Diego net millions of dollars in solar bonds.

The analytical tool created by the four mechanical engineering students at the UCSD Jacobs School of Engineering – Karl Olney, Michael Gollner, Kevin Peng and Ihab Khayal – made it possible for the San Diego school districts, universities and municipalities to perform engineering and economic analyses of cost, energy output, and payback time of solar PV arrays, information considered crucial to the success of the proposals during the federal review process.

“What we did was put addresses into Google Earth and used satellite images to calculate the areas of the rooftops and parking lots where local applicants wanted to install solar panels. We then used an online tool called PVWatts Solar Calculator to help calculate the expected annual output, and a spreadsheet we designed calculated the 10-to-15-year payback of each installation project,” explained Karl Olney, a second-year Ph.D. mechanical engineering student. “The thing that was nice for our projects was that with our tools an individual site’s application could be completed in about 10 minutes.

“I am incredibly excited about the success that UC San Diego and the other San Diego entities had in this cycle of CREBs applications,” Olney added. “I am glad to have been part of this great achievement that will hopefully push San Diego to be the leader in photovoltaics.”

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Karl Olney, a Ph.D. mechanical engineering student at UCSD, helped train San Diego high schoolers on the analytical tool he and other engineering students created to help the San Diego Unified School District secure a big chunk of federal bonds for solar installations.
The UCSD students also trained four high school interns from the San Diego Unified School District on the calculation tool so they could file applications for the district easily and quickly. “By taking a scientific approach to what you’re doing, you can have a solution that is both good for the environment and good for you economically,” said Michael Gollner, also a second-year Ph.D. mechanical engineering student. “It’s a great feeling to know that our work has helped the San Diego region, and not just the environment but also with boosting jobs and the solar industry here. I know a lot of engineering graduates from UCSD will be excited to work in this growing field. Hopefully this will boost their opportunities.”

The UCSD students worked under the guidance of Jan Kleissl, an assistant environmental engineering professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.

“Our students were the key to the success of San Diego’s CREB applications,” Kleissl said. “They did the critical legwork, which meant combining engineering, weather, and economics into a sophisticated spreadsheet tool that easily generated complete CREB applications. It was very rewarding to see our students take such a leadership role in this project. I teach many environmental courses, but I always have the challenge of showing students how to use this knowledge in practice. This CREBs project was an ideal example. Solar energy is a new field and many companies don’t know who to hire. This project showed that mechanical engineering and environmental engineering students are the key resources for these jobs. These jobs require a breadth of knowledge from different disciplines and these student have that knowledge.

Kleissl said this project is a much needed step in making San Diego the solar capital of the nation. The 192 solar installation projects approved for San Diego is expected to promote hundreds of new green jobs and increase by more than 40 percent the capacity of locally produced solar energy with an estimated 20 megawatts of additional solar power. “Nobody really has to use bonds to build solar panels,” Kleissl said. “But the challenge is that the people who would like to use solar the most, such as public universities and schools, can’t get the tax credit that private entities can. So this money is critical to help get PV to people who want and need it the most.”

 

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