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Illinois State University students are working toward a brighter energy future, and looking toward the sun.

The student-led initiative, known as Solar Pathways Project, is exploring possible sites for solar panels to be installed at Illinois State. The effort is sponsored by a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and part of a multi-university effort organized by the Midwest Renewable Energy Association (MREA).

“This grant is unique in that it is fully organized and run by students,” said Missy Nergard, director of the University’s Office of Sustainability, which provides resources for the students of Solar Pathways along with the Center for Renewable Energy and the Renewable Energy Program. “Fundamentally, the faculty and students are creating a shovel-ready solar development plan.”

Nergard and Department of Technology Professor Jin Jo work closely with the students in their efforts to gather data on possible sites for a solar array to be installed on campus. In the recently completed initial phase, students needed to analyze everything from possible annual energy production and different types of installation, to cost analysis and risk assessment.

“This type of program and partnership is 100-percent student driven, and yet the students were expected to do the research and come up with the answers the same as a professional organization might,” said Jo. “And they did it.”

The students located possible sites that vary from the top of the Center for Performing Arts building to parking lots by Hewett and Manchester residence halls. “It was really an incredible—and incredibly rewarding— project, bringing together students with a lot of different interests, and getting them all on the same page,” said Zach Rose, a graduate student in project management who led more than 50 students associated with Solar Pathways for the last year and a half.

Though only through the first phase of their project, Solar Pathways students have presented initial findings to University stakeholders, and presented some of their applied research at the Smart and Sustainable Campuses Conference in Baltimore this April.

“Coming out of the Renewable Energy Program, this project has offered so much hands-on work,” said Peter Tozzi, technical project manager of Solar Pathways. “In my classes, I learned so much about policy and technical aspects, but this has given me an opportunity to see what a large-scale project really entails.” Tozzi added the project fits perfectly in his current pursuit of a graduate degree in project management.

The varied backgrounds of students drawn to the project surprised Rose. “We’ve had a large array of majors from across campus come to work on the project, from renewable energy and organizational communications, to psychology and engineering,” said Rose, a project management graduate student who will begin work with Pepper Construction in June.

Collaboration is key to the project, which shares results with other partners in the MREA, including the University of Minnesota, Missouri University of Science and Technology, and Purdue University. “The idea of the MREA is to advance solar deployment at higher education institutions across the United States,” said Jo.

Jo and Tozzi will also help to forward the work of the partnership this summer with software available at National Renewable Energy Laboratory, one of the DOE’s facilities, in Colorado. “We will run the simulation models, and schools in the MREA’s university partners will be able to use the data as part of their implementation plans,” said Jo, who was appointed a visiting faculty member with the DOE.

Work on Solar Pathways will continue, with the aim of a final project presentation in 2018. Though none of the MREA institutions are guaranteed to take up the plans, Nergard asserts the importance is what the students take away from the experience. “The goal is to develop the plan, not necessarily to complete a solar installation,” she said. “What they learn could impact what they take into the field with them, and how they see the future of their jobs.”