September 1, 2008

Schools Have Sunny Outlooks MSOE, MATC Are Using Emerging Energy Technologies As Teaching Tools


The largest solar power project in downtown Milwaukee is up and running at Milwaukee School of Engineering.

The 144 solar panels sit on the roof of the school's student union building and are visible to office workers in nearby downtown buildings. That's by design, said Chris Damm, associate professor of mechanical engineering at MSOE.

"It's a statement to show that MSOE is leading the way in terms of sustainability and engineering, to attract students who are interested in emerging energy technologies and sustainable engineering," he said.

But the project is more than just a showcase for the university. It's part of a training ground for students to engage in research in the growing fields of renewable energy and more efficient energy use.

Already, students did research to help determine the best spot on the downtown campus to place the solar panels -- to ensure they wouldn't be blocked by shadows from nearby buildings and generate too little power.

The solar project is the largest in downtown Milwaukee and one of the biggest at the state, though larger projects may be in the works.

The state's largest solar systems are at GE Healthcare in Waukesha and Kohl's Corp. in Menomonee Falls.

The downtown Milwaukee project, with a price tag of $235,000, was paid for through a combination of internal funding, a $100,000 grant from We Energies and a $35,000 grant from the state energy efficiency and renewable program, Focus on Energy.

Plenty of interest

Rising energy costs and concerns about global warming are fueling a massive investment in renewable energy -- and creating job openings for professionals with expertise in alternative energy.

Johnson Controls, for example, has dozens of openings around the country for engineers with expertise in renewable energy, Don Albinger, a company vice president, said in a recent interview.

The Milwaukee-based building efficiency unit is reaching out to universities across the state and country, including MSOE and campuses of the University of Wisconsin system, to expand training options for energy engineers, he said.

At MSOE, the advanced energy technologies course that Damm began teaching several years ago fills up so fast that it now quickly attracts 30 students each spring.

Inside the MSOE's Fred Loock Engineering Center, Damm and his student assistant, Brian Goodwin, work on a natural gas cogeneration system in the school's advanced energy technology laboratory. It's one of two new labs the campus is opening that are focusing on energy work. The lab also has a small hydrogen fuel cell system, and a hybrid battery system is also envisioned.

Down the hall, a renewable energy lab opening this fall will include a diesel engine that will be fueled with biodiesel as well as work stations to monitor the output from the solar panels two blocks away.

In a collaboration with George Stone of Milwaukee Area Technical College, students will be able to monitor data from a new wind turbine that began generating power last week at the Mequon campus of Milwaukee Area Technical College.

MATC campuses in Mequon and Oak Creek have each added 17- kilowatt solar generating systems as well, said Joe Jacobsen, associate dean at MATC's center for energy conservation and advanced manufacturing in Oak Creek.

Like MSOE, MATC is expanding in both training future workers in the area of energy efficiency and renewable energy, through the launch of a sustainable facilities degree training this fall in Oak Creek, he said.

Both colleges are riding a wave of renewed interest -- and a surge in funding -- for renewable energy.

When he was a college student, Damm said, there was no funding for academic research in alternative energy because the federal government scrapped many of its alternative energy research and development projects in the 1980s.

"There was so little funding in the area for the last 20 years," he said.

But funding is expected to expand, whether Democrat Barack Obama or Republican John McCain is elected president, Damm said. Both have expressed a need to expand alternative energy and renewable energy as strategies to decrease reliance on imported oil and tackle global warming.

The MSOE and MATC renewable energy projects were funded in part through a nonprofit and educational institution program run by We Energies to boost renewable power use in the area.

Other organizations that have installed solar in recent years with aid through that program include the Urban Ecology Center in Milwaukee and the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center in Bayside.

We Energies continues to seek applications from organizations seeking to add solar power, utility spokesman Brian Manthey said.

In addition, under an agreement with environmental groups signed recently, We Energies will commit to a further expansion of solar power over the next six years.

Power source

The power generated by the solar panels will be sold back to We Energies for use by customers who pay a little extra to participate in the Energy for Tomorrow green-pricing program.

The expansions are in line with a rapid expansion in solar power around the state.

"Our growth is between 60 percent and 100 percent the last three years, and this year is no exception," said Don Wichert, director of renewable energy programs with Focus on Energy.

"Solar electric is going gangbusters," he said, crediting the partnership with We Energies in assisting non-profit organizations. "When you start throwing all those things together, you can get in the range of a seven- or eight-year payback on these projects," he said.


The future of solar power will be discussed during a conference next month at the Midwest Airlines Center in Milwaukee. The Solar Decade conference is planned for Oct. 23-24. For more, go to or call (800) 762-7077.

Go to to see more information about the Milwaukee School of Engineering project, find out more about renewable energy or learn about the We Energies Energy for Tomorrow program.

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