Project Helios

May 11, 2023

By Dr. Okan Caglayan and Daniel Potter

Development of an Off-Grid Solar-Powered Outdoor Workspace

Two students in red shirtsProject Helios was inspired by issues that grew out of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the beginning of the Spring 2022 semester, Broadway Campus students were required to go online for two weeks of virtual instruction. Students were often forced to be close to charging outlets to power their laptops while in their dorm rooms or hallways, which did not always allow for social distancing. The problem with staying indoors during the pandemic was the potential likelihood of disease transmission. If we had a sheltered outdoor workspace with charging capability, we could lower the transmission risk and do so using renewable energy. An off-grid, solar-powered outdoor workspace would also help raise awareness around campus about green energy and the City of San Antonio's commitment to diversifying energy sources. The City of San Antonio’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (CAAP) has a goal to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. At the start of 2023, CPS’s renewables (solar included) made up 21% of its power generation portfolio. Through this project, the University of the Incarnate Word is doing its part to contribute to the city’s goal.

At UIW, faculty and students support each other in the search for and communication of truth, thoughtful innovation, care of the environment, community service, and social justice. This project provides anFour people in white lab coats and one person in a button down shirt and jeans innovative solution to the problem identified during the pandemic while showcasing our commitment to students and the environment. Studies have also shown that varying the learning environment helps to stimulate innovative thinking.

In December 2021 Daniel Potter, Sustainability operations manager, approached Okan Çağlayan, PhD, associate professor of Engineering, with an idea for a solar-powered outdoor charging station. They immediately agreed on the opportunity for a student-led project that would ultimately become Project Helios and started exploring funding opportunities. The main goals of this three-semester student project were twofold: 1) to design and build an adaptive off-grid outdoor workspace powered by solar energy and 2) to provide a sustainable system for the UIW community while promoting a green campus. The image above is a rendering of the solar-powered outdoor workspace which is planned to be located between the AT&T Science Building, the Mabee Library, and the Administration Building.

Three people in white lab coats next to boxesProject Helios was partially funded by a local industry collaborator, Mission Solar Energy. Mission Solar Energy is a solar energy module manufacturer headquartered in San Antonio. Christine Buerkle, Marketing & Communications manager at Mission Solar Energy, has supported the project tremendously by providing the senior engineering capstone team with their highest quality solar panels (MSE PERC 72 415W), manufacturing plant site visits, and networking opportunities with various green energy companies.

In Spring 2022, the Phase 1 team consisted of senior Engineering students Victor Castillo and Jason Simpson, as well as Itzel Alcantar, BS ’22. This team completed the development of the concept by exploring local business partners for materials, providing an initial AutoCAD engineering design, surveying a location with optimal solar exposure and creating a budget. In Fall 2022, as the Phase 2 team, Endis Auvert Jr., Reid Francis and Luis Monroy, BS ’22, transitioned from Phase 1, they completed a solar power system modeling, revised the budget and initiated UIW administrative authorizations and City of San Antonio permit information. The Phase 2 team also built a replica of the solar panel roof mounting for field testing, as shown in the title imagery.

This semester, Spring 2023, senior Engineering students, Desiray Rodriguez, Julian Garcia and Jorge Arreola, are working on Phase 3, which is the overall construction requirement of the structure. Phase 3 includes analysis of structural engineering, instructions for a construction and maintenance manual, finalizing the materials budget, obtaining the City of San Antonio permits, and vendor/contractor selection for the build. The team has also been in contact with Doris Palmeros, associate professor of Graphic Design (UIW School of Media & Design), to collaborate on a logo and website to promote the project.

Dr. Carlos Garcia, dean of the School of Mathematics, Science and Engineering and member of UIW’sRendering of Project Helios Sustainability Advisory Board, has encouraged and supported the project. He stated, “We're excited to be creating a solar charging station in engineering that will be off the electrical grid. We'll be able to showcase a place where students can plug in their laptops, mobile phones, tablets and more, and it will all be powered by solar energy. We like to do things that make us more resilient and forward-thinking to protect the Earth and the environment, which will help us all create a better future.”

Project Helios will be the first off-grid solar-powered outdoor workspace to be installed at UIW. Potter and Çağlayan have already been contacted by several other institutions in the San Antonio area expressing their interest in learning more about Project Helios and we look forward to potential partnerships that create a green San Antonio.