Student reaches out to community for research


Jim Martin

Meadville resident Jim Martin created his own solar panels to fuel his truck with a clean source of energy.

During her internship at the Department of Environmental Protection with Geoff Bristow, the manager of the Office of Pollution Prevention and Energy Assistance, Sarah Swartz, ’16, has started research on solar arrays in northwestern Pennsylvania.

“I have always been interested in sustainability, but my interest in renewable energy started this past summer when I interned at Conservation Consultants Incorporated in Pittsburgh,” Swartz said.

Since she began, she has contacted people in the area who have solar panels. One of these people, Meadville resident Jim Martin, has been able to collect data from solar panels he installed himself. He first converted his turck to an electric vehicle instead of one that runs on gas, but did not want to continue using electricity.

“We put in the solar system so we can really say we’re driving green,” Martin said.

Since then, he has been able to compare the output of energy. He adjusts the panels once per season, frequently reaching capacity of energy collection in the winter due to the reflection of light off the snow. Because of longer days in the summer, however, he is still able to collect the same amount of energy, despite never reaching capacity.

Although the amount of expenditure would not be sufficient payback for electricity for longer than Martin’s lifetime, it is sufficient for the costs of gas.

Data that Martin has collected has given Swartz an example of energy collection in Meadville.

“I also have always liked putting numbers to facts and things to give proof to people, so quantifying the performance of solar arrays seemed like a good fit for a project for me,” Swartz said.

She intends on comparing the energy collection in different areas of northwestern Pennsylvania.

“After this project is done I will be able to show solar array owners, people who are thinking about installing a solar array, and other interested people how many [kilowatt hour] the typical solar array in northwest PA produces.  And this will be based on real data from existing solar panels in the area,” Swartz said.

Steven Utz, the internship coordinator for the environmental science department referred Sarah to the internship after discussing Geoff Bristow’s research of the comparison of wind turbines and solar cell collectors.

“We needed to find the right student with a strong interest in the subject and with a lot of self motivation to follow through on research and analysis. Sarah came to me looking for an internship and she had the interest and drive to follow through on this subject,” Utz said.

Utz is confident that the research and experience Sarah is getting will help her in the long run.

“Certainly working for DEP will give her insight into the process and methods and routes of funding that the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania uses to implement environmental law and regulation,” Utz said. He added, “In the next year she may even use what she has learned in this internship to help develop her senior comp.”