Alternative Energy Education

In the early 1980s alternative energy education was a real, hands-on experience at Jordan College in central Michigan.

| March/April 1981

Considering all the emphasis that's being put on it these days, it's no wonder that many institutions of higher learning are offering courses in alternative energy education with such inviting titles as "Solar Energy System Design," "Residential Earth-Sheltered Building Techniques," and "Wind Power Conversion Systems." But — as is all too often the case in many large universities — the lion's share of such knowledge is sometimes available only from an impassive textbook. And, even when he or she is given the benefit of a concerned and well-informed instructor, it's difficult to imagine a student receiving thorough training in any technical field without actually getting some "hands on" experience.

Recently, however, one of MOTHER EARTH NEWS' editors was asked to participate in an energy-oriented "Open House" at the Cedar Springs, Michigan campus of Jordan College (a small, four-year school stressing the practical and liberal arts, but offering business courses as well). Our staffer was not only amazed at the extent to which alternative energy was used at that 250-person academic center, but impressed to find that the majority of the work had been — and was still being — done by the students.

Solar, Wind, and More

Although Jordan College actually comprises five separate Central Michigan campuses, the Cedar Springs location serves as the showplace for alternative technology; as early as 1975, that campus began working toward energy self-sufficiency. During the first year, the students and administration fabricated a 1,000-square-foot forced-air solar heating system from — believe it or not — discarded beverage cans. Each section of the three-unit arrangement incorporates its own collector, storage bin, and air handler. When all three are used jointly, the setup provides partial heating for a 5,000-square-foot classroom facility.

Jordan's second solar project came about as the result of a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy: A 2,080-square-foot, 104-collector network — one which is plumbed to work in conjunction with the original gas-fired water boiler — generates half a million BTU per hour, and supplies 180°F water to the existing hydronic system within a 7,250-square-foot residence hall. It's estimated that the "drain down" collectors (the liquid medium is stored in housed, insulated tanks at night to eliminate start-up lag time in frigid weather) provide about 25% of the building's space-heating load and 50% of its hot water needs.

Additional solar heating systems were also developed at Jordan, both to provide some do-it-yourself experience to those enrolled there and to bring the institution still closer to its goal of total energy self-sufficiency. The installations include the "Jordan Air" system, which is a simple 8' X 24' wood-framed and fiberglass-covered active collector with an output of 32,000 BTU per hour and a supplementary rock storage area, a slightly smaller collector that's similar in design to the "beer can" unit mentioned previously and ties in with the rock-filled thermal holding bin, and three separate liquid-handling setups — ranging in size from 50 to 196 square feet — which provide domestic hot water for the campus chapel and administration building.

Jordan College's students and staff haven't limited their work to solar power, either. A 4.5-KW wind generator has been mounted on a surplus oil derrick and coupled — through a Gemini synchronous inverter — to the utility grid. Originally, this three-bladed upwind machine fed direct current to a bank of 55 two-volt batteries that provided power for DC lights and motors in a greenhouse and student lounge ... but, when the inverter was donated, it allowed for more practical DC-to-AC conversion.

Gretchen Davis
6/30/2009 8:24:04 PM

I attended JEI from 1984 - 1987. It was a small school, but had excellent teaching staff, and a dedicated group of students. I hated leaving this group after graduation, but feel attending and partcipating was one of the best experiences I had in my lifetime.

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