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Up And Running: Three Innovative Solar Energy Projects In Wichita

Westar Energy is testing solar energy technology across the state through partnerships with schools, nonprofits and government agencies.

The company is fully funding 15 innovative solar projects out of about 100 proposals submitted.

KMUW’s Deborah Shaar has a progress report on the three projects selected in Wichita.

Credit Deborah Shaar

Visitors to the Amphibian and Reptile Building at the Sedgwick County Zoo are searching for turtles, snakes and lizards in the glass aquariums built into the walls.

Some are small spaces, some large. Some have water and others just greenery.

Each habitat has its own climate, controlled by lighting, heating and cooling, fans and even misting.  

The zoo’s deputy director, Ryan Gulker, says that’s why this building consumes more energy than any other building on the zoo grounds.

"There’s a lot of aquatic systems," he says. "The temperature control has to be managed with very little leeway. It takes a lot of energy to do those things. Whether it's winter, spring, summer or fall, there are always some kind of heating, cooling temperature adjustments going on inside that building, and that consumes a lot of fossil fuels."

Last year, the zoo spent about $42,000 on electricity for the Amphibian and Reptile building alone.

The zoo is hoping a renewable energy source, the sun, will offset some of that cost.

Westar Energy picked the zoo’s solar energy proposal and paid about $200,000 for a large ground-mounted solar array.

Credit Deborah Shaar
Sedgwick County Zoo Deputy Director Ryan Gulker

It was installed a few weeks ago on a small hill near the entrance to the building.

"We put the solar array next to the Amphibian and Reptile Building because we kind of felt like we would like to power a building with the sun where the animals that live in the building are powered by the sun," Gulker says. "So 'solar powered animals inside a solar powered building' was kind of an interesting way of applying for the project."

The zoo’s solar array is expected to produce about 42,000 kilowatt hours of electricity each year.

They’ll be able to track how much energy is being produced on a daily basis and their savings on future bills through a web-based portal.

Gulker says the solar panels will also generate energy of a different kind: excitement.

"We’re going to be putting up some educational displays and interpretive (exhibits) so that the zoo visitors can learn a little bit about the animals that are powered by the sun and how that works," he says. "And also learn a little bit about how solar arrays work and help power the building."

The zoo’s 30-kilowatt solar array is the largest of the three projects Westar selected in Wichita.

Credit Deborah Shaar
Great Plains Nature Center


Across town, at The Great Plains Nature Center, a 10-kilowatt solar array went up on the roof of the auditorium building in March.

The center’s director, Jim Mason, says so far the array has produced more than 3000 hours of electricity, enough to shave about $400 off their utility bills in two months.

Credit Deborah Shaar
Great Plains Nature Center Director Jim Mason

Each of the 32 photovoltaic panels measures roughly 4-by-5 feet in dimension, "so it’s a good sized area on the roof that’s covered with these things," Mason says. "Together they make a little over 10 kilowatts of power when they are fully exposed to the sun. And then inside the building we have some computer gizmos that rationalize what that produces and matches it up with the grid voltage is, so that it can become part of what we use for electricity here in the building."

Like the zoo, the nature center’s solar project will include educational components that are still being developed.

Mason says they plan to install interpretive displays along sidewalks leading into the building, where visitors can see the rooftop array.

"Each one of those signs will have a very simple interactive quality to it where a small photovoltaic cell will be connected to an electric meter so that you can put your hand over the cell and watch the meter go down because it doesn’t see the sun anymore," Mason says.

Credit Courtesy Photo
Great Plains Nature Center kiosk concept illustration.

A portable informational kiosk will go into the lobby. The display will include real-time data from the array showing how much energy is being produced at any given moment or for any day since it went online.

Other displays will explain photosynthesis and energy conservation.

Electricity produced by the solar panels is converted inside the nature center's mechanical room. Mason says this highly evolved system basically runs itself.

"The array is divided up into three legs. The power comes in on three separate circuits, and then the inverters have the ability to convert the electricity from DC into AC to match it up to the line voltage outside the building so that it all blends in and becomes part of the pool of electricity that we use here," Mason says.

Credit Deborah Shaar
WSU's United Methodist Church

The third Westar funded solar array is on the roof of the University United Methodist Church on 21st Street near the Wichita State University campus.

The 32 solar panels here produce about 10 kilowatts of energy, enough to meet the church’s electricity needs on most days.

Credit Deborah Shaar
WSU Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Engineering Bill Wentz

Bill Wentz, a distinguished professor emeritus of engineering at WSU, helped get the church project going.

"So an August day when we are running all the air conditioners on a Sunday, we will actually be able to get most of that power directly from the sun," Wentz says. "Whatever doesn’t come from the sun, we get from Westar. The systems blend effortlessly, and with no interaction on anyone’s part."

That’s the big thing with solar panels: Once they are installed, there’s no more work to do. The panels silently produce energy, with no fuels involved. There are no moving parts to break down and no waste coming out of the system.

Wentz says the panels are designed to last up to 25 years.

"This solar panel is going to really help us," he says. "It’ll be exciting and interesting to see how the economics work out, but we’re going to definitely save money. Our utility bills will be much lower than they have been in the past, and particularly so in the very hot months."

The church is partnering with Wichita State and USD 259 schools to incorporate the solar panels and their real-time data into an engineering lab.

Credit Deborah Shaar
Director of the Engineering Technology Program at WSU, Professor Deepak Gupta.

"We can look into the data from this project and see what should have been changed to maximize the efficiency and, therefore, maximize the power output that we are receiving from it," says Deepak Gupta, a professor and director of the engineering technology program at WSU. "So that way it is going to go further, rather than just 'we are done with the installation.' We’ll be able to utilize this data and tweak it to come up with some of the ideas to improve the efficiency of the panels in the future."

These community projects will show how solar panels perform under Kansas conditions and ultimately, guide Westar’s future energy strategy.

The Westar Energy solar energy research project is in cooperation with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment.


To contact KMUW News or to send in a news tip, reach us at news@kmuw.org.

Follow Deborah Shaar on Twitter @deborahshaar

Deborah joined the news team at KMUW in September 2014 as a news reporter. She spent more than a dozen years working in news at both public and commercial radio and television stations in Ohio, West Virginia and Detroit, Michigan. Before relocating to Wichita in 2013, Deborah taught news and broadcasting classes at Tarrant County College in the Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas area.