Harvey Mudd College students to design world’s first nonprofit solar panel factory

Nate Smith HM ’19 (left) and Chris McElroy HM ’19 assemble a solar panel in Harvey Mudd College’s Parsons Engineering Building. (Ben Reicher • The Student Life)

In the basement of Parsons Engineering Building at Harvey Mudd College, five engineering majors are working on an ambitious plan: bringing a solar panel plant to Pomona.

The goal is to provide free or low-cost solar power to Claremont and other local communities. Called Locally Grown Power, the plan is an initiative of Community Home Energy Retrofit Project, a Claremont environmental nonprofit.

“Being able to start a factory from the beginning and see the whole thing through is a manufacturing engineer’s dream,” said Nate Smith HM ’19, one of the students involved.

Slated to open this summer, the plant will be the first solar panel company in the world run by a nonprofit. The plant will be located in a former welding shop that Pomona Unified School District helped locate.

The HMC students are working on a variety of important decisions, including the design of an efficient layout for the factory floor and the selection of assembly line equipment and its suppliers.

The group of students, which also includes Chris McElroy HM ’19, Giulia Castleberg HM ’19, Jacquelyn Aguilera PZ ’19 and Priscilla Chu HM ’19, determined that the factory should produce a finished solar panel every six minutes. This will allow Locally Grown Power to meet its goal to service 6,000 homes in two years, according to the clinic leader, professor Kash Gokli.

“This is a really rare opportunity, I’ve never seen something like this,” McElroy said. “Normally what comes to us is ‘Hey, our factory’s really struggling, how can we improve it,’ and then you work around what’s already on the floor, but we’re getting to make the whole floor from the ground up, and that’s a very special thing.”

CHERP was founded in 2010 by Devon Hartman PZ ’77, who previously ran an architecture company in Claremont for more than 30 years. Hartman first became interested in environmental efforts in 2003 after learning about the impact of buildings and their energy use on greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming. About 40 percent of U.S. emissions come from the commercial and residential building sector, more than any other sector.

CHERP spreads awareness of the economic, health and environmental benefits of home energy efficiency upgrades to Southern California residents. Since 2010, CHERP’s work has led to the renovation of over 600 homes in Claremont alone.

“This is a really rare opportunity, I’ve never seen something like this” — Chris McElroy HM ’19

In 2015, Hartman met inventor Kent Kernahan, and learned about his recently patented idealPV solar panel technology.

The idealPV solar panel operates more efficiently than conventional solar panels, and costs less to manufacture, because the design reduces the formation of hotspots. Hotspotting occurs at specific locations in a conventional panel where a weaker cell overheats, resulting in wasted energy.

Hartman subsequently worked with Kernahan to launch Locally Grown Power. Their plan is to build a solar panel factory to employ members of the local community for a living wage.

Because of the idealPV technology and low transportation costs, Locally Grown Power will be able to install solar power on local homes at a much lower cost.

Ensuring the factory runs smoothly, however, will require the specific training in manufacturing that the HMC students can bring to the table.

“[Our clinic] seems like a big responsibility, but it’s the kind of project that actually fits really well into the education that we have,” Smith said.

Hartman hopes his business model, beginning in Pomona, can be replicated nationwide.

“Generally speaking, [solar factories are] these huge, thousand-employee factories in China or Mexico,” Hartman said. “We intend to reduce the size of those factories, and distribute the factories in all the cities that need them and want them, so that each city can create its own power, just like each city is now trying to grow its own food.”

Under Locally Grown Power’s model, communities would benefit from growth of living wage jobs and affordable power, while simultaneously reducing their use of fossil fuels.

“[The initiative is] focused on sustainability on a local level; it aligns very well with Claremont’s sustainability goals, and California’s as well,” Castleberg said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Jacquelyn Aguilera attends Harvey Mudd College. She attends Pitzer College.TSL regrets this error.

This article was last updated March 6 at 5:38 p.m. to correct the college Jacquelyn Aguilera attends.

 

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