University of Iowa pursues solar station for electric vehicles

Planning for such a station near an existing Cambus fueling station got under way almost two years ago, but the project lacked funding and was eclipsed by priorities after the June 2008 flood extensively damaged several UI buildings. The project was shelved in October 2008, about a month after the plan was completed.

Hopes were revived this year when the Iowa Office of Energy Independence announced a round of grants funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

"We saw this as exactly the kind of project that the act was designed for," said Eric Foresman, an energy engineer in the UI’s facilities department.

The state awarded the project a $250,000 technology demonstration grant earlier this month. It didn’t get another public projects grant the UI was seeking, so it remains about $390,000 shy of the $1.28 million it will need.

Efforts are continuing to obtain other grants.

At the time OPN Architects worked with the UI to design the charging station, it was believed to be the largest solar installation yet in Iowa, said James Meier-Gast, an OPN architect who specializes in green design.

It would extend 180 feet long and provide 57 kilowatts of solar power capability.

That would be enough to charge up to 47 electric vehicles and would even provide power back to the grid when it is not needed for charging, Foresman said.

A leading feature of theproject would be equipping at least one vehicle with "vehicle to grid" (V2G) capability.

Foresman said energy technologists have been fascinated by the potential of battery-powered vehicles to feed energy back to the grid during blackouts.

Today’s plug-in electric vehicles lack that capability, but the UI wants it for learning and demonstration purposes.

Students would be able to study how fast the vehicle batteries could feed power back to the grid and how much energy they could feed without interfering with the vehicle’s usefulness.

Nobody knows how popular plug-in vehicles will become, but Foresman said their potential as a backup power supply seems interesting.

"At a place like the university, with thousands of vehicles plugged in, you could conceivably have enough power at your disposal that the university would never need to buy another emergency generator," he said.