In 2010, Creighton University contracted out to have four individual solar arrays installed around campus.

Dr. Andrew Baruth, assistant professor of physics at Creighton University, explained the arrays came about thanks to the direct efforts of Dr. Michael Cherney, now an emeritus professor at Creighton.

“In conversation, he learned of money that was available through the U.S. Department of Energy as part of a stimulus package that could potentially go to fund something like this,” said Baruth.

Cherney wrote a grant to the Department of Energy to fund all the renewable energy projects on campus, which ended up being a $1.14 million stimulus package that came to Creighton.

“And he did that in tandem with OPPD, who also funded another $250,000 that went to a few wind turbines on campus, installation of a geothermal unit and some of the photovoltaic systems,” Baruth said.

Dean Mueller, retired division manager-Sustainability and Environmental Stewardship for OPPD, said they wanted to be involved with the university and also wanted to gain some real-world experience with solar.

“This was the early days of the technology so stepping up to help with their efforts allowed them to help us as well, Mueller said. “This really was a win-win.”

The array that’s on top of Creighton’s Kiewit Fitness Center (next to the student union) has panels that were integrated right into the roof so you don’t really notice it’s there. That particular system produces 20.5 kilowatts (kw).

“The roof on the fitness center didn’t need to be changed to accommodate the solar panels. These panels are made of a flexible laminate so you roll it out and it has an adhesive on the back. We have a flat roof, so we could basically peel and stick the panels on,” explained Baruth.

There are 143 laminate panels on Kiewit and each one is about 23 square feet.

The main solar array is located just south of Cuming Street next to Highway 75 and is a 420-panel, 85 kw array. At the time it was installed in 2010 it was the biggest array in Nebraska but has been overtaken since.

Creighton also has two tracking solar arrays, one by the Lied Fine Arts Building and one that is adjacent to the Cuming Street array. Each one has 16 panels. Baruth said these are both smaller units, generating about 3.4 kw apiece. He said the panels in these two arrays can pivot to actively track the sun throughout the day.

There were some challenges Creighton faced when having the arrays installed. One big one was that the Cuming Street array was to be located in an area that had parking spaces for faculty and staff. No one wanted to lose too much parking but Baruth said the design process structured the pole-mounted array so that the university only had to give up two spots.

 “The pylons that hold up the array are sufficiently small that it sits at the corner of four parking spaces and there’s still adequate parking around them,” he said. “The tradeoff is now we have a lot of covered parking. The panels sit between 12-15 feet off the ground, so you can park right under them. They provide nice shade on a sunny day and keep snow and rain off when the weather’s bad. So it is actually a win-win in that regard,” he said.

The two tracker panel arrays are ground-mounted and have the flexibility to be mounted anywhere as long as there is solar access. The array by the Lied Center is located in some green space and has been integrated with the aesthetic of the building. Baruth said there are some wind turbines located there as well.

All the systems are grid-tied, so when one isn’t generating enough energy to offset use in the building, OPPD kicks in with electricity. The solar arrays represent about 2-4% of Creighton’s energy portfolio on any given day. Basically that means their total bill for OPPD is offset by that 2-4% each month.

The total output of all of Creighton’s arrays is 120 kw, which produces approximately 220 megawatt hours of energy, enough to power about 40 homes per day.

The money Creighton received for the solar arrays dovetailed nicely with a stimulus package into an additional $1.2 million grant for curriculum development. 

“We wanted to develop a program built around these renewable energy infrastructure items, so the birth of our energy technology program started in the fall of 2011,” said Baruth.

Part of that program has students interacting with renewable energy items across campus to include upkeep, power washing and maintenance. Students are trained to use the scissor lift to access the panels at the Cuming Street array (the one primarily used for student engagement).

“From a teaching standpoint, the most interesting thing is how we process that energy. So adjacent to that array we have a small shed we call ‘the dog house’ where all the power-conditioning equipment sits. That’s where students will interact the most with the array because that tends to be where the issues happen [if there are any],” he said.

Every fall the week before class starts, Baruth takes about 15 students and runs a retreat. And as part of that, the students spend two days doing maintenance on the solar array.

But the students don’t just work with Creighton’s solar panels. A big focus in the energy technology program is design work. Students design systems and create models to see how well they will function at a particular location given the climate and other factors. Then they run a cost analysis.

Creighton students have already worked with the Siena Francis House, the Micah House, a few local parochial schools and internationally as well. They are currently helping with a hospital in Nigeria.

“These projects are well monitored and student-driven. In general, the faculty decide who we are going to work with and put out calls to nonprofits to see if there’s any interest in seeing what it would cost for them to go solar. Once we identify entities we are going to work with, the students take it all and we watch and make sure things make sense,” he said.

Baruth said the goal of the program is to empower students to take away the mystery surrounding renewable energy. He said they’re trying to get rid of the notion that it’s overly difficulty or not cost-effective to use renewables.

He said the world looks like it’s going to need leaders in this field. Students in the energy technology program will obtain a degree in sustainable energy science.

“We are trying to get that client engagement piece as much as possible,” said Baruth. “We are trying to train those leaders — people who know and understand the science, but who are also trying to get at the nuts and bolts of the economics of the situation and what the public perception is.”

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