Thompson Rivers University (TRU) is celebrating the grand opening of its new solar compass walkway today. This is Canada’s first solar walkway.
The solar compass walkway will gather enough energy from the sun to produce about 10,000 Kilowatt (kW) hours of electricity annually. The 75-foot walkway features thick glass plates, including 64 super-durable solar panels.
The solar compass walkway uses an existing compass on the sidewalk outside of the Arts and Education (AE) building as a platform for the new technology.
According to Michael Mehta, project lead and professor of geography and environmental studies at TRU, the walkway will produce enough electricity to power all of the computers in the AE building’s student computer labs year-round.
“If you look around you’ll see many kilometers of road, sidewalk and parking lots that only serve one purpose,” Mehta said in a statement. “By embedding photovoltaic modules into this infrastructure we can generate electricity.”
While the amount of power generated isn’t as much as the power produced from solar panels mounted at an angle facing south, flat solar panels can produce about 75 percent of the power generated in more ideal orientations.
The idea for the project began two years ago when Mehta applied for a grant from the university’s Sustainability Grant Fund, which holds an annual competition for students and staff to apply for innovative projects on campus, and won.
The original project began with a solar sidewalk, a much smaller stretch of sidewalk consisting of 16 panels, in July 2017. The purpose of the smaller sidewalk was to make sure that the project could be done correctly on a smaller scale.
The sidewalk functioned as a “test” of the installation methodology “because nobody has done it with this kind of technology before,” said Mehta. “It’s completely new terrain for us dealing with permitting and inspection and using the right kind of certified equipment.”
The 16-panel sidewalk was installed successfully, which led to the construction of the larger, much more complex 64-panel project — the solar compass walkway.
TRU’s investment in the project is around $30,000.
Mehta has been working with Solar Earth Technologies (SET), a company that develops, produces and markets solar-powered roadways and electric vehicles, for the past two years to develop the technology for the project. SET donated the 64 solar panels for the compass, as well as the 16 solar panels for the sidewalk.
TRU students played a significant role in the project as well. Several students served on the grant committee to secure the funds for the project. More than a dozen students from the trades program at TRU worked on the installation itself, including students from electrical foundations who did the wiring and graft work. Some students even took a turn at the jackhammer.
“For us, it was a perfect opportunity of a project on campus that brings in students for real world learning,” said Mehta. “That almost never happens. If you look at any construction project on campus, it’s independent contractors that are brought in usually under some kind of process and they typically don’t let anyone else in the project for liability and other reasons. In our case, we actively and deliberately included students as part of their training.”
Mehta sees the solar compass as accomplishing several goals simultaneously. On one hand, it will create a drive for more innovation within the field of sustainability. Mehta speculates that once people begin to think about embedded solar technologies, they’ll start to look for other applications, and those applications could be wide-ranging depending on the technological platform selected.
Additionally, Mehta believes the compass makes solar power much more visible than it normally is. “Typically, solar is hidden on a rooftop or somewhere, hidden in a field. This [compass solar walkway] makes it top of mind, something that we walk over that you see daily,” Mehta said. “So I believe that that will help create a shift in awareness of renewable energy and its potential and its applications.”
TRU’s solar compass project offers not only an innovative renewable energy source, but a milestone for sustainability on campuses. Mehta is willing to work with other universities or colleges around the world, in North America in particular, who may want to do something similar.