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Schooling the solar industry

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At 13 years old, most of us aren’t making existing technologies obsolete with revolutionary ideas, but then again, most of us aren’t Georgia Hutchinson.

For her school’s science fair, Hutchinson, an eighth grader from Woodside Elementary in California, built a new type of dual-axis solar tracker that makes other solar trackers look like they may have missed something.

Georgia Hutchinson. Courtesy of Linda Doane/Society for Science & the Public.


Georgia Hutchinson. Courtesy of Linda Doane/Society for Science & the Public.

Dual-axis solar trackers have been around for a while. They work by using photodetectors to locate the sun, and then based on the sun’s location, the solar panel adjusts itself to be perpendicular to the sun’s rays to maximize the panel’s solar intake.

There are a couple of issues though. First is cost. A dual-axis solar tracker for 12 60-cell modules (a fairly standard panel for homeowners) will run somewhere around the $10,000 mark. The second issue is we already know where the sun’s going to be at any given time, so it doesn’t need to be tracked.

The Broadcom MASTERS winners, including Georgia Hutchinson, the winner of the $25,000 Samueli Foundation Prize. Courtesy of Linda Doane/Society for Science & the Public.


The Broadcom MASTERS winners, including Georgia Hutchinson, the winner of the $25,000 Samueli Foundation Prize. Courtesy of Linda Doane/Society for Science & the Public.

Rewind to Aug. 21, 2017, a solar eclipse. Hutchinson and her family took a drive down to Corvallis, Ore., to view it. That got Hutchinson’s gears turning.

“I was inspired by how mankind knew when the Earth, sun, and moon were all lined up,” Hutchinson said in a YouTube video from Broadcom MASTERS, a program created and produced by the Society for Science & the Public.

Hutchinson’s solar tracker takes into account the knowledge we have of the sun’s location. Rather than using costly sensors to locate the sun, her tracker uses publicly available data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to yield the same result as a $10,000 tracker.

“The average payoff period for solar in the U.S. is six to seven years, and many more people would invest in solar if it was cheaper,” she said.

Hutchinson’s project blazed through local science fairs, then up to the state level, and finally landed on the national stage at the Broadcom MASTERS STEM competition. Hutchinson placed first in a pool of 30 finalists and was awarded $25,000 plus a $1000 donation to her school’s STEM program.

Sometimes it pays to take a step back and remember what we already know.

Photonics Spectra
Aug 2019
Lighter Sidesolareducation

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