Campus Life

Students help install solar array for OPP vehicles to operate at zero fuel cost

Student volunteers prepare a solar panel for mounting. Credit: Penn StateCreative Commons

In 2014, Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant (OPP) was awarded a $75,000 grant from the Sustainability Institute’s Reinvention Fund to purchase new 100 percent electric vehicles and build a solar array on campus to power them.

At the time, the vehicles dedicated for OPP staff use in the University Park vicinity ranged from an SUV to smart cars, and averaged less than 22 mpg.

“We came up with the idea of an electric car with a solar offset. If you just get an electric car, you’re basically powering your car off of 90 percent fossil fuels in Pennsylvania,” said Stephen Oskin, an energy engineer for OPP.

By a planning a replacement of the gas-powered local fleet vehicles with 100 percent electric vehicles (EV), and integrating PV (photovoltaic) solar arrays to offset usage, OPP can act as a model for other departments and businesses outside the University.  

“As an energy engineer for Penn State, I was driving around a V-8 Ford Explorer getting 3-4 miles per gallon on campus and I thought that was a bit contradictory,” said Oskin.

While many projects reduce the production of greenhouse gases at the point of use, very few also address the current state of the distribution grid. This project aims to not only reduce pollution at the point of use, but also to completely offset the use of the vehicle in a sustainable manner while providing real-world information to the public.

Installing fleet and visitor electric vehicle charging stations allows OPP to immediately reduce environmental impact without depending on the relatively “dirty” local power grid. 

“Solar plus EV is a powerful system to study as the focus of the investment is on the displacement of gasoline vs. artificially cheap electricity. PV on its own makes less financial sense, but in this system of solar plus EV, the cost and GHG impacts are significant,” said David Riley, associate professor of architectural engineering, and director of the GridSTAR Center.

In October, OPP staff, technicians and student volunteers installed the solar array on campus by the Laundry Building. Some of the students that helped plan the assembly gained experience in the RECA (Renewable Energy for Central America) program in Roatán organized by the Penn State NECA (National Electrical Contractors Association) Student Chapter. The solar modules for the project were donated by Solar City through a collaborative solar education initiative with the GridSTAR Center at the Navy Yard.

“The donation of PV modules to this project was part of a larger donation of equipment supporting solar training for college students, electricians and veterans,” said Riley.

During the installation, students had the opportunity to perform all of the hands-on tasks with support of the OPP technicians: assembling the fittings, measuring the bracings, erecting the superstructure, installing the inverter and panels and wiring the connections.

More than 10 students were involved in various stages of the project’s development with help from staff who brought technical expertise to bear on the project including OPP employees Cyle Vogt, Eric Nulton, Ron Perttu, Sam Bertolino, Chris Musser and Doug Tubbs, and technicians Shawn Ebeling, Mike Kocher, Jim Flanagan, Tom Diehl, John Stephens and Robert Blazina. It was truly a group effort.

“I’d like to take to opportunity to thank the students who volunteered their time throughout the project, the staff that took valuable time to move this along, the excellent tech service personnel who both set up the project and helped on build day, the management team and the folks at the Sustainability Institute who helped make this possible,” said Oskin.

For more information about this project, contact Oskin at To learn more about sustainability efforts at Penn State, visit

Editor’s Note: The charging stations outside the Office of Physical Plant building are available only to OPP’s electric vehicles. There is a project underway at the Nittany Lion Inn parking deck that will be a public amenity for guests who valet. There should be four public stations as a pilot project to collect data.

Last Updated November 18, 2015