ISU Engineers tackle energy problem

Matt Martin, senior in mechanical engineering, and Joe Briggie, senior in mechanical engineering work on a proposal Sunday May 24, 2009 in the Black Engineering Building. Their student group, NECA, is vying for a first place prize of $2,000. Photo: Rashah McChesney/Iowa State Daily


Matt Martin, senior in mechanical engineering, and Joe Briggie, senior in mechanical engineering work on a proposal Sunday May 24, 2009 in the Black Engineering Building. Their student group, NECA, is vying for a first place prize of $2,000. Photo: Rashah McChesney/Iowa State Daily

Saturday, while many Ames residents and students were relaxing during an extended Memorial Day weekend, the Hewitt Study Center in the Town Engineering building was abuzz.

Five students sat hunched over computers, surrounded by charts, graphs and photos illustrating the feasibility of solar panels, wind turbines and new lights for Edwards Elementary School, 3622 Woodland Street.

The group, members of the National Electrical Contractors Association student club at Iowa State, are hoping to present a plan that will win “The Green Energy Challenge” put forth by the national organization.

Claire Bassett, senior in construction engineering, said this was the first year for the contest.

“They came out with the competition guidelines in February and there are about 10 schools participating,” she said. “First place is 2,000 dollars, which is twice our yearly budget.”

Bassett said the NECA club learned about the competition through the Iowa chapter.

“Not everybody in the club is working on this, most of us were officers last semester,” she said.

The competition rules were released in February, a site assessment was due in April and the proposals are due May 30th, according to the guidelines. Each team is “challenged to identify a building in their community that is in need of energy efficiency improvements.”

The club picked Edwards Elementary School and went out to inspect the building and the grounds three times.

“It wasn’t too difficult, I called up the principal of the school and our club advisor went to school there. We couldn’t be there when the kids were at school so we had to be there at like 6:30 a.m., which was hard for some people,” Bassett said with a laugh.

After the inspections, the group split up to tackle the independent sections of the proposal.

Matt Martin, senior in mechanical engineering, took over the wind energy system design.

He sat, hunched over his computer, measuring the height of the turbine it would take to be an effective addition to the school’s energy input.

“The turbine has to be at least twice the height of the largest obstruction in the area, so I went out to measure the trees,” Martin said.

Because the school is located in a residential area, there are a number of large trees around the building. The group didn’t want to demolish any of the trees to make way for their improvements.

Martin explained that figuring out the height of the tree was a relatively simple process.

“Basically, I measured the shadow of the tree, then took a ruler and put it perpendicular to the sidewalk and measured the length of the shadow and since I knew the ruler was a foot long I could calculate the angle of the sun,” he said. “It would have been more fun to climb them though,” he said with a grin.

Martin said the three tallest trees were about 92 feet and the turbines needing to be twice that high presented problems with both funding, crane height and transportation to the school.

“Iowa is one of the best locations for wind energy, so the school would have the option of selling back some of the energy they generate,” he said.

The group also plans on proposing photovoltaic panels, or solar panels for the roof.

Bassett explained that the roof on the school was relatively flat and had recently been redone, making it sturdy enough to support the weight of the panels.

Inside the school, Matthew Jahnke, senior in construction engineering, was looking at the lights.

Jahnke said that while the group was planning on replacing the poor lighting the school is currently using, they were also looking at simpler things like repainting the ceiling tiles and walls to reflect more light.

“We’re not just going to slam new fixtures in and walk away,” he said.

For the group, many of them are planning on going into sustainable design and engineering. This type of competition provides real world experience for them.

“This is right up my alley, I want to design when I get out,” Jahnke said.

Martin said he wanted to get into wind energy after he graduated and Bassett said she wasn’t sure if she’d be getting a job of this type right after graduation.

“But that’s kind of the direction things are going,” she said.

Joe Briggie, senior in mechanical engineering, was focused on the financial planning of their proposal.

He said one of the perks of the project was that they were given a low energy price to work with when planning for numbers. Another aspect that he enjoyed was the potential interaction with students.

“There’s a flip side of this project that we want to incorporate into the kids at the school and their eduction,” he said.

Bassett explained that the group is proposing a meter to be put into the school that would allow students to keep track of their energy usage.

Martin broke into the discussion excitedly saying “My idea was to make a web server and take the numbers from energy generation and keep track of it on an interactive web graphic so the students could project numbers and calculate how much they were going to be using and how much they could sell back.”

The group explained that building an awareness of energy usage was key in affecting sustainable change.

While the project is not expected to be implemented, the group still hopes to keep it as feasible as possible. The group is also planning to participate in the competition next year as well.

“It’s kind of tough because none of us have ever done anything like this before, so it’s a learning experience,” Bassett said.