USF scientists put spotlight on solar energy

 The FLeX house on the lawn of USF Research Park is built with a passive design that relies on the sun to power its electronics and the weather to cool its interior. ORACLE PHOTO / ADAM MATHIEU

After standing outside in 87-degree weather, over 30 Tampa residents and community leaders cooled off inside the house built on the lawn of Research Park. Walking on cypress floors, the visitors marveled at the kitchen appliances, bedroom lighting and modern plumbing that all functioned without impacting the environment. 

USF researchers conducted the Solar Experience tour Wednesday night, co-sponsored by the Bridge and the Sierra Club, to demonstrate how the university is harnessing nature to create a sustainable future.

Rebecca Blanco, an organizer from the Bridge, said the tour was meant to keep the community actively aware and informed.

“Our mission is to promote everything having to do with sustainability on a local level,” she said. “To build a community of like-minded people.”

The first stop of the tour was the FLeX House, a showpiece model built in 2011 in collaboration with University of Florida and Florida State for a national competition to build a home powered solely by solar energy.

Jamie Trahan, USF Clean Energy research assistant and a doctoral candidate for mechanical engineering, led the tour of the FLeX House.

“The reason we are all interested in energy efficiency is because we want to mitigate our environmental impact,” she said. “Efficiency also gives greater return on investment by reducing the energy we need.”

Trahan said the house is built to take advantage of nature, instead of relying on mechanical design.

“You don’t need any electricity, you just use the architecture to cool and heat your home.”

The house is also built with the Florida climate in mind, Tahran said. While most Florida houses are made with concrete that collects heat, the outside of the FLeX House is framed with cypress that redirects light from the home and lets softer light brighten the home.

“It’s cooling the house in the same way a tree cools us off in the shade,” she said. “Cypress is also a very good insect repellant.”

Trahan said the FleX house is net-zero energy, and therefore produces as much energy as it consumes. It is still on the electrical grid, like any other house, but it can return energy back into the system. A great deal of energy comes from the solar panels fitted on its roof, Trahan said.

She also said solar technology is becoming cheaper and more efficient, and one day, it is conceivable that the technology will allow people to go off the grid.

The second stop of the tour was USF’s solar thermal power plant, which powers some of the Research Park office. The stop was meant to demonstrate the research possibly leading to that future.

Constructed in 2011, the plant uses mirrors concentrating sunlight into a focal point that creates high temperatures. Though some permits for mirror technology have been put on hold because birds could potentially be set aflame in the air.

In a traditional power plant, coal or gas burns to create steam that is pushed through a turbine coupled to a generator that powers the energy grid.

The plant at USF is a demonstration however, and isn’t large enough to power a grid or hot enough to produce steam. Instead of water, a refrigerant that boils at a low temperature is used for research. 

“That produces heat, so why aren’t we using that heat to produce steam?” she said. 

After the tour, visitors hung around to talk about politics and the latest breakthrough in sustainable technology. 

Tampa Councilwoman Lisa Montelione said she came to the event because she’s interested in the potential impact solar energy could have on Tampa’s communities.

Montelione said the future of a sustainable Tampa will depend on the direction of the elections, and blamed political gridlock in Tallahassee for hindering Florida’s progress.

“It’s the closest thing we have in the area to the technology that is going to bring us into the future,” she said. “This is what we need to be building and this is the direction we need to be going.”