Heliotronics Develops Solar Learning Lab Software

By Joanne Ray | September 28, 2010

Exciting news hits Hingham, Mass., when middle school science teacher Andrea Stuart finds a simple way to introduce solar power to her students.

According to an article published in the Boston Globe on December 30, 2007, Stuart made a new discovery as she was playing around with software that collects data from the high school's new solar voltaic roof panels.

"We're studying photosynthesis," Stuart told the Globe. "We see how plants do this; now we can see how the panels do this — use the sun for fuel."

Being able to harness the sun to make electricity is what officials from the town's lighting plant and schools had in mind when they installed small solar panels on the high school roof in late summer. At 56 feet by 4 feet, 2.5 kilowatts covers a small portion of the roof and generates only enough electricity to power two to three classrooms. The real power is a demonstration of a fully operational state-of-the-art solar installation that feeds its power into the school's grid. With the help of data-monitoring computer software installed with the panels, students and teachers are learning about transforming light into electricity.

Science teachers were instrumental in the campaign that resulted in Hingham Municipal Lighting Plant's footing the $35,000 bill for the system. The town's power utility has a stake in other renewable energy programs and a history of promoting alternative energy education.

"Twenty years ago, when I got out of college, we built oil- and gas-fired power plants," John Tzimorangas, general manager of the lighting plant, told the Globe. "The kids today are going to have to build something else. These panels are to stimulate them to think outside the box."

Clayton Handleman, president of the Hingham-based company Heliotronics, developed the Solar Learning Lab software and gave teachers a primer on using it late last year. The interactive software has extensive information on the system — from photos of the roof and associated hardware to a screen displaying updates of its energy output second by second.

Users can isolate certain factors such as the sun's angle and the air temperature and produce graphs to view how those factors affected power production in specified hours, or days or weeks. It can calculate how much carbon dioxide, sulfur oxide and nitrogen oxide production was avoided by using solar-generated electricity (rather than polluting sources) over a specified time. And it can calculate which appliances the roof panels could power in a specified time period.

Heliotronics' data-monitoring software is used throughout the state and the country, including Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. One of its most recent installations, at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams, Massachusetts, allows visitors to use the software inside a kiosk.

Handleman told the Globe that the solar industry has solved its early technical problems and now produces safe and high-quality energy. What remains is for demand to rise to the point where the technology will decrease in price.

Handleman figures the cost of solar now averages more than twice what Hingham residents pay (14.7 cents per kilowatt-hour). These prices, however, don't reflect a number of mediating factors such as available tax credits and subsidies for going green; longer possible payoff periods based on the panels' longevity (at least 40 years); cost savings in public health benefits; and the fact that once the capital is paid off, the fuel (the sun) is free.

Industry experts generally agree that the cost of solar voltaics should become economically competitive with conventional sources sometime between 2013 and 2017.

According to Tzimorangas, that won't be a moment too soon.

"By 2012, in New England, use of electricity is going to be pushing against the ceiling of what we can provide," Tzimorangas said. "That's why these alternative energy sources and thinking outside the box are needed."