Soak up the sun (North by Northwestern)

By Lindsey Kratochwill

Solar Panels on the Ford Design Center, Northwestern University.

In 2009, an idea came to then-McCormick juniors Phil Dziedzic and Ren Chung Yu, which led to a project called GRIN: Green It Now. The two members of Northwestern’s Engineers for a Sustainable World wanted to do something that would have a direct impact on the university’s sustainability.

Yu and Dziedzic had been involved with the solar car team, NUsolar, a group that annually raises funds to build and race a solar car. A solar panel would involve less engineering work, so the pair thought: “Let’s give it a try.”

The idea brewed in the back of their minds, as they did energy audits on smaller buildings to supplement the larger audits the university was performing.

Yu and Dziedzic started with GREEN House, doing audits and assessing the possibility of adding a solar panel. But there was one problem: The surface area of the roof wouldn’t support the array.

“Ford came to mind,” says Yu. “It was already LEED certified, and it was high profile.”

They began exploring the necessary contacts within the administration, leading them to Facilities Management, where they met Jim McKinney. The next step was to get McCormick School of Engineering on board. Yu says these were the two pieces they needed to really start moving toward the hard part: fundraising.

Raising money and writing grants for funding were the crux of the project. In late 2009, Josh Kaplan, then a McCormick sophomore, joined the project.

“My first assignment was to write a grant proposal,” says Kaplan. “It was one of the smaller ones, and they had me write it.”

These grants could have been written by Yu or Dziedzic. Although it took Kaplan longer, he started challenging why they were doing certain things. This was important, because shortly after Kaplan got involved, they found out the state funding they had been banking on fell through. That left them, essentially, with just contingency funding.

“We thought it was because we hadn’t written a good proposal,” Kaplan says.

So they went back to the drawing board, reevaluating and setting up a framework of four goals. They also brought the Northwestern Sustainability Fund on board, reaping the expertise of Weinberg senior Anthony Valente.

In 2010, Yu graduated and Dziedzic entered the master’s program at McCormick, passing the reins down to Kaplan and Valente. Regardless, Yu never worried that the project wouldn’t end up with a solar panel on the roof of Ford.

Sure enough, the team found out they had received a grant from the Illinois Clean Energy Community Foundation to pay 60 percent of the cost of the project, which amounted to about $65,000.

Yu and Kaplan were in different places when they found out.

“I was away on co-op when the letter came. I had to go to a large meeting […] and I was just beaming,” Kaplan says.

When Yu found out, he was on campus and ran from the Allen Center to the Environmental Policy and Culture office. This was one of the happiest moments of his undergraduate career, he says.

“I was making calls to everyone the whole way,” says Yu. “I ran to Professor Wolinksy’s [director of EPC] office and gave her a big hug.”

All that was left was implementation. Facilities Management largely took charge, with McKinney taking the lead as project manager. Facilities Management took care of the safety and technical aspects, but they kept the Centennial Solar Panel System team involved throughout the process, allowing them to sit in on meetings and contribute to decisions.

The group raised $117,050 for the project, as well as in-kind services such as waiving fees and staff services. Yu believes this project is a prime example of what students can accomplish. The CSPS provides green energy directly to the university, and he hopes that it will lead to further initiatives that will have immediate and direct impacts.

The CSPS team celebrated with grant contributors and members of the administration, though it never looked like they wouldn’t make it to this point. They were more reaching out and looking forward. At the event, McCormick Dean Julio Ottino called the project a “great thing for all of Northwestern,” because potential applicants are starting to pay attention to environmentally conscientious campuses when choosing schools.

“We are dependent on things coming from the bottom up – the students driving the process,” Ottino says.

This article was published in North by Northwestern on 10 May 2011.


Engineers Build Robots For Design Competition (The Daily Northwestern)

My bud Sam Bobb and I built a robot in freshman year of college, and competed in an obstacle-course race competition. We won 2nd place and USD2,000.

Here’s a quote from the university newspaper about the competition:

The second place team, Shepard Robotics, also said luck was part of their success in the tournament. McCormick freshmen Sam Bobb and Ren Chung Yu lost in the first round but won each round after to make the final round in the double-elimination tournament.

And here’s a video of the epic final round race between our team, Shepard Robotics, and Team Nomec:

Read about the competition in the full article published by The Daily Northwestern, on 5 May 2007.