By Steve Frandzel
Finding the right angle to improve solar panel efficiency

Corbin Moser’s Expo team was tasked by EarthCruiser USA in Bend, Oregon, to increase the efficiency of solar panels mounted on the company’s all-terrain expedition vehicles.

EarthCruiser vehicles are designed to be self-sufficient during long-term travel in remote locations. They rely on solar panels coupled with batteries for power when parked, and are equipped with an onboard water purification system.

EarthCruiser not only sponsored the project, the company also let the students use its garage and tools at the Bend production facility.

First, the team tried cooling the panels with water. “Panels start to degrade and lose efficiency when they become very hot,” explained Moser, who is receiving a degree in energy systems engineering. “If you can keep the panels cool, you can maintain their maximum efficiency.” The approach resulted in a net energy loss, because the water itself had to be cooled.

Next, they installed a system of actuators that could raise the panel to an angle as high as 25 degrees along either edge. This allowed the sun’s rays to hit the panels more directly, especially when it was low in the sky.

“When you’re in locations where the sun is very low in the sky, you want the panels as high as possible,” said Moser.

In field tests (with the panels not connected to a vehicle), efficiency increased 5 percent when the panels were raised to angles that captured more of the sun’s energy. The solution also allowed air to flow under the raised panels and created a convective cooling effect, which the team estimated would further increase efficiency by 1 to 2 percent.

Team member Nicholas Evano, also graduating with a degree in energy systems engineering, noted that although most EarthCruiser vehicles are used for recreation, they could become a valuable tool for humanitarian organizations, such as Doctors Without Borders. “Imagine being able to bring clean water and a well-lit, well-ventilated surgical room to people living far off the grid,” he said. “That’s an exciting prospect.”

EarthCruiser is holding on to the students’ prototype for further development, such as the addition of automated sun-tracking software.

Other team members
Ryan McMahon, Energy Systems Engineering

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