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Class works on solar panel project for the Kenyon Farm

Class works on solar panel project for the Kenyon Farm

Students enrolled in the Department of Environmental Studies’ Solar Electric Systems class (ENVS 104) will not only study as researchers, but also as electricians, engineers and builders. The class, taught by Jerry Kelly ’96 and Kenyon Farm Manager Ryan Hottle, will spend the semester designing and constructing a solar-powered trailer for the Kenyon Farm, which will function as a mobile freezer for the farm’s produce.

Unlike other agricultural farms that focus on growing ground crops, the Kenyon Farm does not have a facility to keep its produce cool, making transportation difficult when selling its crops. “Most vegetable operations need a large cold storage packing facility, [and] we don’t have anything like that,” said Hottle, who has managed the Kenyon Farm for the past two years. “Right now, we just try to make do with what we got.”       

Under Hottle’s leadership, the farm has shifted from primarily working with livestock to a greater focus on ground crops. In order to keep their fruits and vegetables fresh, the farmers must pick their produce and sell it on the same day. The trailer would eliminate this inconvenience by allowing them to both store and transport their produce without having to worry about it spoiling in the process.

“The cool thing about a trailer is that we can wheel it back and forth, and it could keep stuff cool right up until the point that we get it to market basically,” Hottle said. “And then we don’t have to offload anything — it’s all just mobile.”

Hottle said the trailer, both solar-powered and mobile, will communicate a combined message on the importance of sustainable agriculture and renewable energy.

“Lots of times the solar’s in places that’s a little bit hard to see,” he said, “so this’ll be a really nice kind of symbolic thing that people can easily see. They can easily interact with it, [and] they can understand what’s going on.”

While this semester marks the class’s sixth run, it will be the first to feature large-scale student involvement in construction. The class’s previous projects have all worked with power from the main electricity grid, making it too dangerous for students to be directly involved with installation. Since the trailer is a “stand-alone” system — disconnected from the dangers of the main power supply — students will have greater opportunities for hands-on involvement.   

“We’re not dealing with huge power loads coming off of an electric line,” Kelly said. “We’re dealing with a smaller sort of model of electricity … We can do the vast majority of it ourselves, and we can do it safely.”   

Having students directly involved in the construction process has a practical advantage as well; it allows them to garner experience in solar energy that they can use in their future careers.

“We created this class for two purposes basically,” Kelly said. “[One being] to give students an opportunity to learn some information and skills that would enhance their chances of getting jobs in the solar industry.” 

Kelly said that while solar energy is “only one way to approach the problem” of climate change, it is the most reliable and effective method available right now.

“It will make a difference if we move fast enough to make sure it makes a difference,” he said. “So all of that combined with the innate intelligence of Kenyon students and the energy, that’s what makes this class really interesting and exciting for me.”

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