Hands-on Activity: Renewable Energy Living Lab: The Bright Idea

Contributed by: Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, Colorado School of Mines

Two photos: Three men install solar panels on an angled rooftop. Landscape view of silhouetted wind turbines and electrical transmission towers.
Does solar energy make sense everywhere, or only some places? Would another form of energy work better? What information might help you decide?
copyright
Copyright © (left) SunShot Initiative, US Dept. of Energy, (right) National Renewable Energy Laboratory Newsroom http://www1.eere.energy.gov/solar/sunshot/index.html http://www.nrel.gov/news/features/feature_detail.cfm/feature_id=1658?print

Summary

Students use real-world data to evaluate the feasibility of solar energy and other renewable energy sources in different U.S. locations. Working in small groups, students act as engineers evaluating the suitability of installing solar panels at four company locations. They access data from the online Renewable Energy Living Lab from which they make calculations and analyze how successful solar energy generation would be, as well as the potential for other power sources at those locations. Then they summarize their results, analysis and recommendations in the form of feasibility plans prepared for a CEO.
This engineering curriculum meets Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS).

Engineering Connection

Many different methods are available to collect energy and generate electricity; some are better suited to a particular area than others. Engineers use data to understand the problem and evaluate viable solutions. When designing systems to produce or transmit sustainable energy, engineers look at opportunities to harness all types of renewable resources such as sunlight, wind, biofuels, geothermal heat and flowing water. Installing solar panels in an area with inadequate sunshine would not be the best choice. Part of an engineer's job involves conducting research and evaluating data to determine the feasibility of technologies for specific areas and conditions.

Pre-Req Knowledge

A good understanding of units and unit conversion. Helpful if students have conducted the Exploring Regional and Local Resources activity— for its guidance and practice using the Renewable Energy Living Lab).

Learning Objectives

After this activity, students should be able to:

  • Use renewable energy potential maps to collect data on various energy forms.
  • Analyze data and draw conclusions based on given specifications.
  • Describe factors contributing to renewable energy feasibility.
  • Construct an explanation based on evidence for how changes in climate have influenced human activity.

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Educational Standards

Each TeachEngineering lesson or activity is correlated to one or more K-12 science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) educational standards.

All 100,000+ K-12 STEM standards covered in TeachEngineering are collected, maintained and packaged by the Achievement Standards Network (ASN), a project of D2L (www.achievementstandards.org).

In the ASN, standards are hierarchically structured: first by source; e.g., by state; within source by type; e.g., science or mathematics; within type by subtype, then by grade, etc.

  • Construct an explanation based on evidence for how the availability of natural resources, occurrence of natural hazards, and changes in climate have influenced human activity. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Changes caused by the use of technology can range from gradual to rapid and from subtle to obvious. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • When new technologies are developed to reduce the use of resources, considerations of trade-offs are important. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Decisions regarding the implementation of technologies involve the weighing of trade-offs between predicted positive and negative effects on the environment. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • The decision whether to develop a technology is influenced by societal opinions and demands, in addition to corporate cultures. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Energy can be grouped into major forms: thermal, radiant, electrical, mechanical, chemical, nuclear, and others. (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Energy exists in many forms such as mechanical, chemical, electrical, radiant, thermal, and nuclear, that can be quantified and experimentally determined (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • Matter tends to be cycled within an ecosystem, while energy is transformed and eventually exits an ecosystem (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
  • There are costs, benefits, and consequences of exploration, development, and consumption of renewable and nonrenewable resources (Grades 9 - 12) Details... View more aligned curriculum... Do you agree with this alignment?
Suggest an alignment not listed above

Materials List

Each group needs:

  • computer with internet access (or printed or projected renewable energy potential maps as found on the Renewable Energy Living Lab website)
  • The Bright Idea Worksheet, one per student

Introduction/Motivation

Why is there a need for renewable energy? (Listen to student suggestions.) Well, the answer is really two-fold: 1. We are using non-renewable energy sources, like fossil fuels, at a rate faster than they are naturally produced by the environment and 2. Burning of fossil fuels is harmful for our environment and is contributing to climate change.

In your lifetime, have you witnessed humans responding to the idea that we might be changing the climate by the way we use energy? How so? (Listen to student suggestions. Encourage them to be specific and hit on the main sources of renewable energy like solar, wind, water/hydro, and geothermal.) Some examples include:

  1. Installing solar panels on the rooftops of houses
  2. Using hydropower for irrigation
  3. Obtaining energy from waves using tidal power
  4. Installing wind turbines on open land
  5. Off-shore wind power using wind turbines off the coast
  6. Using geothermal energy for electricity and heating

If a growing community needs more electricity to support all the needs of its citizens, schools, activities and businesses, how would you decide what type of energy source to develop? (Listen to student ideas.) Well, the answer is that you don't really know until you do some research and find out some information and data.

To consider whether a renewable energy source is feasible, what questions would you ask? (Listen to student suggestions. Then amend with the following, if they haven't been mentioned.)

  • How does it work?
  • How much is there? (How much power potential?)
  • How much does it cost?
  • What is the environmental impact?
  • Is the resource available in the area where we need it?
  • Any other questions?

Engineers use data to guide designs and decisions about how to develop and apply technology. Asking these questions and looking for data and information is how engineers would approach this question.

Today, we will take on an engineering challenge that requires us to look at data acquired and presented by the Department of Energy National Laboratories, as made available through the online Renewable Energy Living Lab.

Vocabulary/Definitions

feasibility: Making sure that an engineering design is not only physically possible, but also achievable in satisfying all design requirements (such as, cost, efficiency, profitability, timeline, safety, ethics, etc.).

photovoltaic cells: Semiconductor devices that convert the light energy (such as from sunlight) into electric energy. Also called PV cells or solar cells. Cells may be combined into panels, or arrays of panels, to generate energy as part of a photovoltaic system.

Procedure

Background

In this activity, students act as engineers and evaluate alternate renewable energy sources for facilities in different U.S. locations. To summarize their research and analysis, they prepare feasibility plans comparing renewable energy options for four different facility locations and present their findings to a CEO for approval. For engineers, feasibility is not just a question of "is it possible," since little is impossible in today's world, but rather, does it meet all the associated design requirement questions, such as: Is it the most efficient option? Can we afford it? Is it safe? Is it the right thing to do?

This activity is, at best, a cursory assessment of available solar power. Assuming all roof space is covered with solar panels, all available solar energy is absorbed and converted to electricity, and no losses in transmission, expect students to find that two of the four locations appear to have adequate average solar power potential: Yuma and Longmont (if you choose locations that require less space for the photovoltaic system than roof space available), while the other two locations do not. Remember, three stories of building space exist, but only one roof space (1,500 m2 x available solar power)!

Before the Activity

  • Prepare the computers and make copies of the The Bright Idea Worksheet.
  • Divide the class into small groups of two or three students each.

With the Students

  1. Provide students with the hypothetical context by describing the engineering challenge: You have recently been hired by "The Green Company" as an engineering consultant to examine its energy use and source options. The chief executive officer (CEO), Mr. Envy, recently read an article describing how one of his competitors installed a photovoltaic system (solar panels) at its headquarters building to generate 100% of their electricity needs. Mr. Envy wants to outdo his rival, so he assigned you the task of designing solar energy systems for each of his four facilities to generate 100% of the electricity needed for each facility. While Mr. Envy has his own personal motivation, your task as an engineer is to examine the science and technology behind the choice to use renewable energy and present the pros and cons of various options for each facility, including but not limited to feasibility (space, availability, etc.), cost and environmental impact. Then, you will write a feasibility plan that summarizes your research and data analysis for Mr. Envy. To solve this problem, we'll use real-world data hosted on the Renewable Energy Living Lab website.
  2. Hand out the worksheets as a guide for this activity.
  3. Navigate students to http://www.teachengineering.org/livinglabs/index.php> click to enter the Renewable Energy Living Lab.
  4. Help groups become oriented to the interface through the following steps:
  • Click the button for grades K-12.
  • Under the "Data Layers" tab, uncheck all of the options on the left panel under "Resources," except for "Solar Photovoltaic," as shown in Figure 1. The other forms of renewable energy can be shown later in the activity simply by reselecting them.
    Screen capture shows a map of the continental U.S. in color gradations from light yellow in the NE to dark orange in the SW. From a list of eleven renewable energy sources on one side of the map only "Solar Photovoltaic" is checked.
    Figure 1. Example data map showing solar energy potential from solar photovoltaics (all others data options deselected).
    copyright
    Copyright © 2016 Renewable Energy Living Lab, Colorado School of Mines
  • Show students how to use the "Query" (beside the Legend tab) and "Zoom To a Location" tool on the top right of the screen beside the zooming in and out tools. Queries are used to get numerical data for small regions on the map. (This is explained in detail in the Exploring Regional and Local Resources activity.) Run through items in the FAQs tab (bottom right of the map) to gain more familiarity.
  • Have students explore the living lab, looking at various places on the map or at different types of renewable energy sources. Extremes are fun to look for, such as wind energy in Boston, or solar energy in Las Vegas.
  1. Have student groups work independently to follow the step-by-step worksheet instructions to calculate the amount of space necessary to provide 100% of the power for each building. The following steps explain how this is done. (Note: The detailed worksheet instructions clarify the following brief procedure and the source of some of the numbers used).
  • Use the query function to get data for a specific city—Longmont, for example. Longmont receives approximately 5,400 Watt-hours per square meter per day, or 5.4 kWh/m2/day.
  • Convert days to years (multiply by 365). Longmont receives approximately 1,970 kWh/m2/year.
  • To find the area required to generate the necessary power for the office campus, divide 2,800,000 kWh/year by the previously calculated 1,970 kWh/m2/year. This yields approximately 1,420 square meters, meaning enough room exists on the Longmont campus roof for the solar panels. Following are the (approximate) results for each of the four calculations. Thus, the data indicate that solar panels would work for the Yuma and Longmont locations, while other solutions may be better for Utica and Cedar Rapids. For Utica, a more economically viable source may be hydro power, while biomass might be more appropriate for Cedar Rapids.

Facility 1 in Longmont, CO = 1,420 m2

Facility 2 in Utica, NY = 1,830 m2

Facility 3 in Cedar Rapids, IA = 1,700 m2

Facility 4 in Yuma, AZ = 1,150 m2

  1. Have students answer all questions on the worksheet.
  2. To conclude, lead a class discussion so students can share, compare and discuss their results and findings (as described in the Assessment section) and/or assign teams to make summary feasibility plan presentations (verbal or written) to the CEO, using the requirements and criteria on the worksheet and in the Assessment section.

Attachments

Troubleshooting Tips

Review the worksheet prior to use. If students do not conduct the Exploring Regional and Local Resources activity prior to this activity, teachers may need to spend a little extra time demonstration how to navigate the website. Conducting the associated activity (and its worksheet) first is especially helpful to help students become proficient in using the living lab interface tools and make data queries.

Assessment

Pre-Activity Assessment

Questions: Ask students questions to ground their understanding of the value of research and data analysis, as provided in the Introduction/Motivation section.

  • If a growing community needs more electricity to support all the needs of its citizens, schools, activities and businesses, how would you decide what type of energy source to develop? (To be able to answer this question requires research and analysis of pertinent information and data.)
  • To consider whether a renewable energy source is feasible, what questions would you ask? (See a list of possible questions in the Introduction/Motivation section.)

Activity Embedded Assessment

Worksheet: As students navigate the website and work through the worksheet problems and questions, walk around and notice their data and answers.

Post-Activity Assessment

Class Discussion: As a class, review results and conclusions. Ask students: Will solar work everywhere, or only some places? Where it won't work, could another form of energy work better? What additional information might help you decide?

Feasibility Plan Presentations: Have groups summarize their research and analysis in the form of feasibility plans that compare renewable energy options for four different facility locations and present their findings (written or oral) to the CEO for approval. Report requirements:

  • A summary of the preliminary data tasks.
  • An analysis of Mr. Envy's original plan of 100% solar power at each location, and your assessment of how successful this plan might be. (Expect students to conclude that solar energy is a great source of energy in Longmont and Yuma, but not the most economic source elsewhere.)
  • Your evaluation of other power sources for each location. (Expect students to recommend hydropower for Utica and biomass for Cedar Rapids.)
  • Your proposed alternative(s) for Mr. Envy.

Remember: Mr. Envy is a stubborn CEO who thinks this is the simplest thing he could do—just slap some solar panels on the roof and be done with it. If you want him to do something else, you must present a convincing argument. The best presentations meet the following criteria:

  • An explanation of the problem (This is your chance to educate Mr. Envy; he is not a scientist or an engineer so explain the science and technology to him with direct and accurate statements.)
  • Quantitative and qualitative data to support your analysis of the problem
  • An explanation of your recommendation(s)
  • Data to support your recommendation(s)
  • Use of graphics to clearly present data and concepts

Activity Extensions

Make it more personal: Instead of (hypothetical) Mr. Envy's facilities, use your school building for the "facility location." This works especially well if you can obtain actual electrical power usage data for your building. Using a real facility that students are familiar with and invested in makes the analysis more meaningful and opens up a number of possible extension projects. Ideas to consider:

  • Find a local contractor or vendor who is willing visit your classroom as a guest speaker to talk about the pros and cons of using renewable energy technologies on your building.
  • Research local and regional tax credits or other incentives.
  • Research facilities in your community that already use renewable energy sources.
  • If the data looks good, write a proposal or letter of interest to the school board to start the process of making your building more "green" by installing solar panels, wind turbines or other renewable energy technologies.
  • Install a smaller system for class research and data collection more than to generate significant power.

Easy differentiation for challenging your students: Have students consider other factors in their calculations, such as peak demand vs. average demand (do you need to be on the grid to handle peak loads or install a battery energy storage facility), seasonal variations in production, total roof space vs. usable-accessible roof space, ground based application to augment or replace roof-top installations, energy loss in conversion and transmission, efficiency of solar panels, etc.

Add cost data: Cost data is a bit elusive and so variable that it was not included as part of the living lab data. However, students groups could conduct some additional research to estimate typical costs of comparative technologies for inclusion in their feasibility plans. With cost information, the living labs interface could easily be used to answer a wide range of other student inquiry activities.

Small group project: This activity includes four sites to evaluate and the work is somewhat repetitive, which lends itself well to working in groups of two or three students to share the calculation workload and check each other's results. A small group could also incorporate some support and differentiation for students with special needs.

Have students conduct the other living lab activities provided in the TeachEngineering collection.

Activity Scaling

  • For lower grades, help students with the math and unit conversion.
  • For upper grades, consider having students incorporate additional data into their calculations, as described in the Activity Extensions section.

Additional Multimedia Support

Teacher resources: http://www.teachengineering.org/livinglabs/renewable_energy/educators.php

Other Related Information

This activity is designed around the Renewable Energy Living Lab, a resource of current and real-world scientific data, in this case a culmination of available renewable energy data from across the U.S. The data is available in a database with a graphical interface using a scaling map for viewing of regions as large as the continental U.S. and as small as a town. It is rare that students have access to query such as extensive body of scientific data to support their own inquiry-based questions. Additional background information is provided in the living lab interface including source information used to compile the data.

Contributors

Mike Mooney; Minal Parekh; Scott Schankweiler; Jessica Noffsinger; Karen Johnson; Jonathan Knudtsen

Copyright

© 2013 by Regents of the University of Colorado; original © 2012 Colorado School of Mines

Supporting Program

Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, Colorado School of Mines

Acknowledgements

This curriculum was created with the support of National Science Foundation grant no. DUE 0532684. However, these contents do not necessarily represent the policies of the National Science Foundation, and you should not assume endorsement by the federal government.

Last modified: February 27, 2018

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