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NMSU engineers install photovoltaic power, data acquisition system

Photovoltaic power systems can be found at homes, businesses and other universities, but the new photovoltaic systems at New Mexico State University's Southwest Technology Development Institute are unique.

NMSU Southwest Technology Development Institute Engineer Cory Asbill is conducting research in photovoltaic systems that are monitored to determine their effectiveness in varied climates. (NMSU photo by Emilee Cantrell)

Under a project called the First Solar Long Term Test Environment, SWTDI is monitoring the differences in performance among three different modules that composed that have a slightly different design and architecture. Corey Asbill, an engineer on the project, said SWTDI will be tracking information such as what system does best at a certain temperature.

"Our funders want to know the differences in performance between the three generation systems," Asbill said. "Does this one work better when it's hotter or does that one work better when it's hotter"?

The photovoltaic systems are unique because they are equipped with a Data Acquisition System that measures the power output, sunlight, amounts of current and temperature data, Asbill said. SWTDI designed, purchased and installed the DAS. One DAS monitors the DC, or the incoming energy, one DAS monitors the AC, the output, and a main DAS, or brain, remembers and records all of the DC and AC data. All of the data is collected and sent to a computer where it is stored and analyzed.

"This is not usual for a photovolataic system," Asbill said of the DAS. "This stuff right here is unique. This is kind of the heart of the system."

SWTDI engineers designed, built and installed two other systems, one at the University of Vermont and one at the Florida Solar Energy Center. There is also a system at Sandia National Laboratories, which is being used as the baseline. Asbill said the data from the different places will allow researchers to find out how the different systems perform in the different climates.

"We're hot and dry, Vermont is cold and wet and Florida, the third system, is hot and wet," Asbill said.

Gabriela Cisneros, who worked on program management for the project, said the project is part of a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement between Sandia National Laboratories and First Solar, the largest photovoltaic company in the U.S. In association with Sandia, SWTDI developed the instrumentation to monitor the performance of these systems in three distinctly different environments, New Mexico, Vermont and Florida.

"It will benefit this company, First Solar, and Sandia National Laboratories in order to understand the reliability of solar photovoltaic modules in different climates," Cisneros said.

One of the benefits the research will have at NMSU is that engineering students participated. "They got real world experience in actually learning how to implement a project from start to finish," Cisneros said. Students gained technical skills from the experience.

Photovoltaic systems work by taking the energy the sun creates, converting that energy into usable energy and then sending the electricity to the grid where it is used by buildings. Asbill said that this PV system at SWTDI is offsetting the amount of energy NMSU has to purchase and they are, "producing power and reducing costs."

"This place is an asset that could be used for recruitment and retention because the field is growing like wildfire," Asbill said of SWTDI. "I think NMSU has a unique opportunity and asset regarding this place."