URI Campus Sustainability: Ask the Expert

By Erin Harrington
Jesse Duroha, Ph.D. student in Industrial and Systems Engineering for the Sustainability Innovative Solutions Lab. Photo credit: Nora Lewis

Imagine you’re a Ph.D. student trying to explain how solar panels work to a classroom of kindergartners. Definitely not an easy feat for multiple different reasons (including the fact that it’s nearly impossible to get a 6-year-old to stand still longer than the time it takes to say “renewable energy”) but if you’re Jesse Duroha, Ph.D. student for the Sustainability Innovative Solutions (SIS) Lab, you would achieve this near-herculean feat by making it a game. 

For this game, some students would stand on one side of the room, imagining they are electrons on the “positively charged” side of the room. The remaining students stand on the other side of the room, pretending they are electrons on the “negatively charged” side of the room. When the sun hits the room, the students move from the positively charged side and take the place of a student on the negatively charged side. Then the students on the negatively charged side of the room run with cardboard cutouts of the sun in their hand, and try to get the sun’s energy to the nearby table (masquerading as a light bulb) as fast as they can.

Or, as Duroha describes it in a more scientific way, “The sun rays are called photons. When the photons hit the solar panels they generate electrons. These generated electrons displace the electrons on the negatively charged side of the solar panel. Because they’re displaced, the electrons travel through the wire and they go to the light source, and that creates electricity.” 

Pretty simple, right? If you’re like me and you have neither a solar engineering degree, nor the stamina of a six-year-old recently powered up by her mid-morning juice break, maybe this fun, animated TED-talk video will help make it more clear…

Duroha works for URI’s Office of Sustainability, as well as the Sustainability Innovative Solutions (SIS) Lab. As Duroha explains, at the SIS lab, despite the fact that scientific research is the focus, “we try to put the human person first.”

Using scientific research to help others is a common theme in Duroha’s work, that likely started at a young age. Duroha grew up in Lagos, Nigeria, where inconsistent power supply is a common issue.

“It’s a big problem not having a constant power supply. It affects every form of professional work and innovation.”

“There’d be times where we’d be sitting watching tv and the power would go off. It happened almost daily.”

Because of this almost daily energy battle, if you’re a young person in Nigeria who wants to help others and contribute to your country at the highest level, Duroha explains the natural choice is to get involved with energy research.

After obtaining a Bachelor’s degree in petroleum and natural gas engineering and a dual masters in chemical and petroleum engineering, Duroha wanted to branch out to renewable energy research for his Ph.D. and found himself studying under Dr. Gretchen Macht for the SIS lab. What exactly does this lab do, you ask? 

“We like to think about how we can make systems fit the human better so they can work more efficiently and safely,” Duroha explains. 

For instance, part of Duroha’s Ph.D. work focuses on the safety and well being of workers who install solar panels. He’s currently in the process of conducting a nationwide survey of solar panel installers to find out what they perceive to be the biggest risks with their job.

“If we can understand their risk perception, we can understand what encourages or discourages installers from joining the workforce and remaining in it. We can understand, from the perspective of the installers, where the current state of safety is in the industry.”

The work Duroha does for URI’s Office of Sustainability is more focused on the solar panels themselves. According to Duroha, this work focuses on improving the production quality and reliability of large-scale solar systems. With the recent creation of the South Kingstown Solar Consortium (SKSC), the developer of the system, Kearsarge Energy, provided the office with a dashboard that allows Duroha to see the energy production of the solar systems on campus (Plains Road) and the former South Kingstown/Narragansett dump on Rose Hill Road.

Using this solar data, Duroha is building a mathematical forecasting model that allows him to predict the energy production behavior of these solar panels and detect any significant anomalies. To predict the curve of energy production over the course of a given day, the model uses information from one or two previous days. The following day, Duroha then takes that prediction and compares it to the true energy production to see how much difference there is between the model’s prediction and the actual energy output for that given day. And the cycle repeats. Duroha is in the process of testing this forecasting model to see if it works, and if so, how well it works. So far, the results are promising.

The ultimate goal though, Duroha informs me, is to acquire more data over a longer period of time and conduct more research so that scientists can understand the factors that might negatively impact solar energy production. Once researchers have a better handle on these factors, it will be easier to perform more accurate detection of anomalies in energy production, and thus develop more efficient ways of producing solar energy.

Duroha urges that the solar energy community continues to push to be more creative with solutions to the many issues that solar energy research faces in its infancy.

“Solar energy research is still emerging. There’s different obstacles. Like where can we put these large scale systems?”

Aside from the issues that come with needing to predict what variables might affect solar energy output, there’s also serious logistical issues like how to provide enough space for the amount of solar panels needed to produce useful amounts of energy. 

If URI adds solar panels to rooftop buildings, for instance, that doesn’t present too much of an obstacle because they aren’t interfering with everyday human activities and don’t take up resources. However, if the solar panels are located in areas of high social or ecological value, that can create a problem.

“When we’re talking about farmlands or forestlands, anything that has to do with cutting down trees, then that becomes an obstacle because those things are valuable to society,” Duroha informs me.

An additional issue is that researchers need to develop more advanced battery storage systems that are both efficient and cost effective. Furthermore, the infrastructure currently in place needs to be updated to account for solar energy, and needs to be better integrated with the energy grid.

But, Duroha has confidence that researchers and stakeholders will continue to be creative with their problem solving. For instance, many solar energy sites are “upcycled” areas such as abandoned landfills and “there’s lots of conversations on how to incentivize farmers to adopt solar on their farmlands that will also be beneficial for them,” Duroha adds.

According to Duroha, the bottom line is that if we want solar energy production to be more efficient and feasible as an alternative energy source, we need to continue diligent research and keep thinking outside of the box.

“We really need everyone in the solar research community to continue to be dedicated and brave and continue to explore, and that’s what I’m trying to do as well.”

Erin Harrington is the Graduate Communications Manager for the URI Office of Sustainability. She is a Ph.D. candidate in Biological and Environmental Sciences and her research focuses on public engagement in science and science writing.