UCF was selected to receive four awards from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Technologies Office, the most of any university this year. The awards total $9.64 million — $7 million from the DOE and $2.64 million in matches from UCF.

“These awards amplify UCF’s national leadership in solar energy research.”
— James Fenton, director of the FSEC Energy Research Center

“These awards amplify UCF’s national leadership in solar energy research since the establishment of the Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC) in 1975 by the Florida Legislature,” says James Fenton, director of the FSEC Energy Research Center (ERC). “We are committed to advancing the rapid transition to a sustainable energy economy and collaborating with key partners. UCF ‘walks the talk’ by the university’s commitment to being climate neutral by 2050.”

UCF is increasing its leadership in solar research, having received 14 awards from the DOE since 2011 to pursue solar research and development. Additionally, FSEC ERC received a contract earlier this year from the DOE to lead a team that will monitor the performance of floating solar systems around the nation and compare them to their land-based counterparts. The recognition is part of a larger university-wide effort to prioritize energy research, including FSEC ERC and the interdisciplinary Resilient, Intelligent and Sustainable Energy Systems (RISES) faculty cluster, which brings together engineers, computer scientists, and the public administration experts.

“RISES has seven labs of which four are endowed and externally-supported, including Siemens Digital Grid Lab, Smart Infrastructure Data Analytics Lab, Microgrid Control Lab, Cyber-Physical System Controls Lab, and L3Harris-UCF UAV Lab,” says Zhihua Qu, Pegasus professor of electrical and computer engineering and faculty lead for RISES. “These unique labs offer facilities for research and education in fields of renewable energy, smart building, and connected communities. Our highly creative people and extensive research capability make UCF a leader in photovoltaic and electric power systems.”

Here are the four projects the DOE funding will help advance.

Securing Our Nation’s Power Grid

Principal Investigator: Wei Sun, Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Director of Siemens Digital Grid Lab
Total amount awarded: $4.75 million

As a nation, we have all grown reliant on uninterrupted electricity to power us through everything from the workday to staying cool during the long Florida summer. Efforts have been made to develop smarter power grids with more reliable energy sources, ranging from solar panels to batteries and smart air conditioners. And while those technologies are often more resilient during extreme events, such as hurricanes, they can also make our power grid more vulnerable to cyber attacks, which threaten to cause damage to the equipment and cause blackouts.

In an effort to develop innovative strategies to better defend our nation’s power grid from sophisticated cyber-attacks and quickly recover from them, Wei Sun and his team are developing new models and algorithms that can be used in addition to and in conjunction with existing systems.  They will then test their discoveries using UCF’s microgrid control and security testbeds and conduct utility field tests. The goal is to gain a holistic understanding of how these new devices interact with the physical power grid in order to make it more resilient.

“Because these new devices are located in the grid, or at the grid edge, traditional cybersecurity enhancement approaches are mostly centralized,” says Sun, who is a part of the RISES faculty cluster. “But we also need to understand how to control these distributed energy resources to enhance our power grid cybersecurity. That’s the major contribution of this project.”

Wei will be working on this project with UCF team members Qu and Aleksandar Dimitrovski, associate professor of electrical engineering.

Extending the Operational Life of Solar Panels

Principal Investigator: Kris Davis, Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering
Total amount awarded: $2.51 million

Most solar panel manufacturers offer warranties up to 25 years with one caveat: their performance will decrease over time, scientifically referred to as the degradation rate. But what if there was a way to prolong their optimal performance?

That’s where the DOE-funded project led by Kris Davis comes into play. Davis and his team are developing new imaging techniques to study exactly what wear and tear occurs as a result of being exposed to various elements. Partnering with big utility companies such as the Orlando Utilities Commission, NextEra Energy and Southern Company, they will visit existing field sites and develop techniques to take ultraviolet and infrared images to learn what’s happening under the surface level. They will also bring panels that are underperforming back to their lab and perform what Davis calls an autopsy on them.

“Using different nanoscale characterization techniques, we hope to understand the root cause of these problems and be able to communicate them to the industry,” says Davis, who is a member of the RISES faculty cluster. “In some cases, it may be a defect that’s already well known and we can bypass the whole process. But we’re finding there are a lot of defects and people aren’t really sure what’s causing them. That’s where our project can offer a lot of value and ultimately help bring down the cost of solar energy.”

This project is one of five related DOE-funded projects that Davis is leading — three of them doing similar characterization assessments and two developing new materials — all geared to extend the life of solar panels. He will be working with UCF team members Mengjie Li, postdoctoral research scientist; Dylan Colvin ’19, materials science and engineering doctoral student; Nafis Iqbal, materials science and engineering doctoral student; Hubert Seigneur ’01 ’03MS ’07MS ’10PhD, an associate research scientist at FSEC Energy Research Center; Sudipta Seal, professor and chair of materials science and engineering; Tamil Selvan Sakthivel, research scientist; and Titel Jurca, associate professor of chemistry and member of the Renewable Energy and Chemical Transformation (REACT) faculty cluster.

Improving the Reliability of Bifacial Solar Panels

Principal Investigator: Hubert Seigneur ’01 ’03MS ’07MS ’10PhD, Associate Research Scientist in Solar Technologies Research at FSEC Energy Research Center
Total amount awarded: $2 million

Solar panels have made significant advancements over the past 10 years. One of the new technologies is bifacial — or double-sided — solar panels, which capture light from both top and bottom panels and generate power from both sides They are predicted to comprise 35 percent of the solar panel market share by 2030, but they face the same environmental hazards as traditional solar panels.

One approach to test the impact of these stressors is to increase them artificially by many factors in a laboratory environment while monitoring how the solar panels respond in order to identify and study potential failure mechanisms. However, reproducing certain known failures — such as polarization potential-induced degradation (p-PID), or when the voltage difference between the solar cell and the solar panel creates a current, resulting in power leakage — is challenging to simulate in the laboratory. Using a unique outdoor testbed, Hubert Seigneur ’01 ’03MS ’07MS ’10PhD and UCF team member Mengjie Li, a postdoctoral research scientist, plan to replicate and study p-PID and develop a new material to reduce its effect.

“Once we understand and are able to develop a model of the failure mode, we will be able to propose guidelines for improving the design and installation configuration of bifacial modules,” Seigneur says. “This will help reduce the levelized cost of energy, which is the cost of electricity generation for a plant over its lifetime. If a solar panel has to be replaced before its full life expectancy, then the cost of energy increases for the consumer. Decreasing the levelized cost of energy by increasing the reliability of solar panels will also lead to the faster adoption of clean energy and a cleaner environment.”

Optimizing Compressors for Solar-Thermal Power

Principal Investigator: Jayanta Kapat, Pegasus Professor of Mechanical Engineering, Trustee Professor, and Director of the Center for Advanced Turbomachinery and Energy Research (CATER)
Total amount awarded: $377,000

While solar panels convert light to electricity, solar-thermal energy absorbs heat from solar radiation and converts it to electricity, often through use of a compressor that can circulate that heat long after the sun has set. According to MIT Technology Review, this power generation system has huge implications for moving one step toward a world free of carbon emissions by generating “power at least as cheap as standard natural-gas plants and [capturing] essentially all the carbon dioxide released in the process.”

There’s still a lot to learn about the process before we get there, but basically, by using the supercritical carbon dioxide (sCO2) produced during the process, this power system can continuously recycle sCO2, generating enough energy to fuel a range of power plants. Jayanta Kapat and his team will be studying how sCO2 flows in a compressor for solar-thermal power and developing solutions to optimize the compressor’s performance in various environments.

“The compressor is really the key component for providing electricity from solar-thermal energy,” says Kapat. “In this specific project, the source of heat is solar-thermal energy. However, sCO2 technology is very versatile as it can also be used in conjunction with fossil energy, renewable-derived green hydrogen (in the future), next generation nuclear reactors, or even fusion energy. With this award, CATER will be working on four of the five critical components of a sCO2 power cycle, and this puts us in a very competitive position as compared to our peers.”

Kapat will be working with UCF team members Erik Fernandez, a research assistant professor at CATER, and post-doctoral research associates Ladislav Vesely and Akshay Khadse ’20PhD.