Solar Cats Transform a Dorm

Sept. 30, 2011

Her freshman year, Katherine Weingartner, an Honors College student majoring in public management and policy, lived in the Posada San Pedro hall. It might have been chance, but the faculty fellow in the hall, John Pollard, Ph.D., professor of chemistry and biochemistry in the College of Science, sent around an email inviting residents to a meeting about solar energy that would change everything.

Faculty fellows are professors who are assigned to each hall to act as mentors and advisors to the students.

“I said, have you guys noticed that all the lights in your dorm are powered by burning coal? Anyone want to do something about it?” remembers Pollard.

He didn’t know he was dealing with Weingartner and a highly motivated group of change agents.

“He said, ‘I think we should have photovoltaic panels on a U of A residence hall because we’re a research institution, and also, we live in Arizona, which should make us solar leaders,’” says Weingartner. “He motivated us to take the project on as our own.”

Weingartner quickly found herself as the leader of this group of freshman visionaries – the UA Solar Cats – trying to do something that had never been done before. The original Solar Cats on the project still involved today consist of undergraduates Katherine Weingartner, Alyssa Hinchman, Kevin Pounds, Kellie Goodlet, Sarah Nagaratnam, Steven Henglefelt, Cheryl Blomberg and Amber Luttmann.

The team spent their first year educating themselves about the processes and costs of such a venture. That learning continues today; the group recently volunteered to install solar panels on a local Tucson school.

“It was really fun,” Alyssa Hinchman says about the hands-on installation work, “but it was harder than it looks.”

In year two, the group began to investigate the specifics of what it would take to get photovoltaic panels on the roof of their own hall.

“We had to network and create strong relationships with the student community, U of A staff, and also with partners in the greater Tucson community,” Weingartner says.

As the project took shape, the students quickly found themselves working on a large-scope effort with a budget of $94,000, not to mention the challenge of working with the UA system to get approvals to do a construction project on the roof of a hall.

There was also the challenge of finding the money to get the job done.

“The Metropolitan Energy Commission gave us funding, and so did the Student Services Fee Board, which is student money allocated by students.” The Solar Cats also received money from the Green Fund, a 10 member student committee that supports projects to make the University of Arizona a more environmentally sustainable institution.

Three years after the idea was born and a huge amount of work, the funding, approvals and plans fell into place, and the group was ready to move ahead with the installation. On September 20, 2011, 44 panels were finally installed atop Posada San Pedro.

While a construction crew had to be hired to do the hands-on work, the students were there on the roof to take part in the process.

“They didn’t let us install on the Posada San Pedro dorms, but we supervised,” Weingartner jokes. “They did a pretty good job.”

While the project will save energy, it is also creating a hands-on solar energy research lab right on campus. In the residence hall, students have access to a system that allows them to monitor the building’s energy production and usage over time.

“The estimated annual production will be 20,000 kilowatt hours and the greenhouse gas reduction will be about 14 metric tons per year,” says Weingartner. “That’s a lot.”

She looks forward to the years ahead and beyond her time as a student here at the UA, when she will be able to return and see the results of the Solar Cats’ continuing vision.

“I can come back years from now and look on the roof and see that I was a part of that initial movement where the University of Arizona made a commitment to green buildings and a green environment.”

As for Pollard, he will always remember this group of students and their passionate work, their initiative, and their desire to see a vision become reality.

“You know, as a faculty member, you see students come and go,” he says. “But to be able to plant a seed and have students grab it and make it their own, that’s one of the most rewarding things that can happen.”

Learn more about other efforts across the UA devoted to sustainability and the environment.

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