A plan by a team of undergraduates from the Whiting School of Engineering to bring affordable solar energy to the Baltimore City communities that need it most was named a runner-up in the Sustainable and Resilient category of the 2022-2023 Jump into STEM competition, hosted annually by the Department of Energy (DOE) and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
“Solar Success Loans for Baltimore Resilience and Sustainability,” an approach created by fourth-year students Cecilia Doyle and Hanting Wong (civil and systems engineering); Helen Hu (mechanical engineering); and Brennan Hughes (applied mathematics and statistics), laid out a plan to address inequity in energy burdens for city communities, allowing them greater access to sustainable energy and to become part of a self-sustaining energy-production cycle.
The team members’ multidisciplinary backgrounds provide to be an advantage in tackling a challenge as complex as this one, Doyle said.
“Brennan and I focused mostly on the actual concept of how the solar loans would work in terms of developing the technical idea. Helen looked at our stakeholder group, identifying the problem and the needs of Baltimore communities, while Hanting worked on translation of the market aspect and how the project would actually be feasible. All of our different skill sets meshed really well,” she said.
The students began by analyzing the 2018 Baltimore Community Risk Perception Survey, which stated that more than 78% of city dwellers overall were worried about natural disasters, such as storms and loss of electricity, with respondents who live in low-income housing being especially concerned.
The team also learned that the average Baltimore City household spends 10.5% of its gross household income on energy—the second highest in the country—and that burden is felt even more by people in lower-income households.
“Essentially, the communities that need reliable electricity the most do not have it. In wealthier communities, most people have cars and very well-insulated homes, so if something happens and their heat goes out, they can still be warm. Or if they need to evacuate, they can usually do so in their vehicle. More disadvantaged communities spend a lot of money on their electricity, and it puts them in a difficult spot, so, a reliable source of cheap electricity would be a gamechanger,” Hughes said.
Taking those factors into account, the group devised a plan that involved the Baltimore City government funding solar development in various communities via loans. The energy produced through the solar panels would be sold to Baltimore Gas and Electric, with the proceeds used to pay back the communities’ loans. The city would own the panels and the energy produced until the loans are paid back, at which point the city would transfer ownership of the panels to the community. At that point, communities could produce their own electricity and potentially profit from selling excess energy to BGE.
“If more communities in Baltimore are developed with solar, the city could become more self-sustaining,” Doyle said.
One potential roadblock to implementing the group’s plan is the city’s preponderance of flat-roofed rowhomes, which are typically sealed against moisture. Drilling into those roofs to mount solar panels could result in leaks into the homes below. In addition, rowhome roofs are flat, which makes installing and situating solar panels at angles for maximum sun exposure more challenging.
A “solar canopy” developed for rowhomes by a New York-based company could offer a solution, according to the team. With this option, the solar panels are placed on beams, lifting them several feet off the ground and leaving the structural integrity of the roof below intact.
“By lifting the panels several feet in the air, you no longer need to avoid roof features in the design nor provide a pathway to comply with fire code, allowing for the installation of much larger solar systems,” Wong said. “You also have more flexibility, so you can also put the panels at any angle you want and not worry about them being obstructed.”
The team’s work was born out of an assignment in the “Design Theory and Practice” course taught by Ben Schafer, the director of the Ralph O’Connor Sustainable Energy Institute (ROSEI) and the Willard and Lillian Hackerman Professor of Civil and Systems Engineering at the Whiting School. And though the project concluded at the end of this semester when the class ended, it has left the students thinking that Baltimore City officials would do well to consider developing a similar plan to deliver better, more sustainable energy to their citizens.
“The Baltimore City government already has a lot of utility subsidies, so they are trying to make electricity cheaper for these communities,” Hughes said. “If they could reallocate that money into putting towards installing solar panels, we think it could permanently make electricity cheaper for these communities.”