CWRU studies solar panels

After an uncharacteristically warm winter in Cleveland, the upcoming summer offers the possibility of being even hotter than usual—with plenty of sun to enjoy and to use. This is good news for Case Western Reserve University’s Solar Durability and Lifetime Extension (SDLE) Center and its director Roger French.

Created in 2011 in conjunction with Ohio’s Third Frontier initiative, the Center is the brainchild of French, a professor at the Case School of Engineering. In brief, the project focuses on “outdoor, exposed technologies that have very long lives,” in French’s own words. Chiefly, this refers to photovoltaic (PV) cells, also known as solar cells, which convert light (typically solar) energy into electricity.

The SDLE’s research initially centered around determining the reliability of PV module warranties (typically estimated at around 25 years) through the use of data science, statistics and “population studies” of large data samples. Soon, however, it moved on to studying actual solar power plants, beginning with some unsuccessful attempts to obtain power plant data from actual power companies.

“[Power companies] weren’t willing to give us their data,” said French. “So we built a sun farm [ourselves].” That decision led to benefits far greater than the members of the SDLE had initially imagined.

“Currently, we have 122 solar power plants,” French divulged. “We started analyzing our own data and publishing papers. And now we are studying about two percent [3.4 gigawatts] of all the PV power plants on the globe.”

According to some studies, PV cells could produce around 40 percent of all electricity in the U.S. within just a few decades.

Although the scale of the Center’s research has increased massively, its general concern remains largely the same: to study the durability of long-lived systems. The method by which this is done has also remained essentially unchanged; the SDLE continues to conduct large population studies using data science. However the types of systems that it studies have expanded dramatically over the years.

From an initial focus exclusively on PV technology, the Center now works on electronics, micro-inverters, “cool roofs,” new types of building sidings, window films and the energy efficiency of buildings, according to French.

French says that the idea for the SDLE came out of his work as an engineer.

“I came to realize that it takes a lot more work to make materials last long than to merely invent new materials,” he said. “This led me to become interested in degradation science.”

French also acknowledged the role of distributed computing central to the activities of Google and Facebook, which he said exerted a significant influence on his own approach to studies using data science.

French has helped numerous customers of the SDLE to provide much more accurate warranty information on their PV cells, such as one notable instance in which he found that a client company sold 20-year solar mirrors that were actually only good for 12 years.

But he is perhaps most proud of the fact that he has played an instrumental role in establishing an official data science minor for undergraduates at CWRU. Dozens of students are now enrolled in it, and French feels that it could provide them with some very valuable skills in whatever future careers they may choose to pursue.

His efforts have also yielded fruit in other, unexpected ways. A collaboration between data scientists at the SDLE and the CWRU Business-Higher Education Forum demonstrated the ability of researchers to perform peta-scale data computing, a large figure for a single university.

French is highly enthusiastic about spreading similar data science courses to other universities. He also notes the importance of student initiative in such ventures.

“One of the really cool things at Case is the potential for interdisciplinary work,” French said. “Many of the students I’ve worked with come from very different fields, and some of them have already been published in major scientific journals as undergraduates.”

However he feels that many students don’t get the most out of the opportunities available to them because they aren’t loud and proud about their interests.

“My message for students is: Please speak up. Make your voices heard.”