💡‘It’s critical:’ OUC partnership with UCF students helps create tech to improve solar energy

Recent UCF engineering grad hired after creating sensor to help detect solar panel issues

ORLANDO, Fla. – It’s an issue with solar panels that brought together a Central Florida electric company and a college student, solving problems to better the future of sustainable energy.

“So you have tens of thousands of solar panels in a solar farm. How do you know what each of those solar panels is doing? Are they operating properly? Are there issues? How do you diagnose an issue with that many solar panels,” said Orlando Utility Commission Manager of Emerging Technologies Justin Kramer.

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OUC turned to the engineering students at the University of Central Florida to help find solutions.

“It never ceases to amaze you how they’d approach the problem differently than I would,” Kramer said.

Maguire Mulligan was one of those students.

“I feel like it’s that magic energy. You tell people that you get power from the sun and it’s hard to believe and I feel like solar energy is underutilized and I’m interested in finding out where solar will go,” Mulligan said.

Getting hands-on, Mulligan worked with a group of students to create a device from scratch for his senior project.

“It was a lot of trial and error. It got down to the wire. Some people didn’t think me and my friends could get it done,” Mulligan said.

But they did, creating an all-in-one PV sensor prototype that can help diagnose solar panels and see what energy they’re producing without technicians having to go to the solar farm and check each panel.

“That day when I was out in the field and I put it to the test and it came back working as expected, I jumped for joy. It was no exaggeration. I was excited,” Mulligan said.

It’s all part of OUC’s campaign to transition businesses and municipalities it supports to 100% solar energy by 2030. The company already has several solar farms, some on land and others floating in retention ponds powering about 10% of its customers.

“Solar provides a lot of opportunity, but there are some issues with fluctuations as well as producing power for eight hours in a 24-hour day,” Kramer said.

Cloud cover is also an obvious problem, causing a drop in energy. Problems Kramer said can be resolved by the minds of the future. Putting an emphasis on more kids and students getting involved in STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math.

“It’s critical because we need people to not only be the workforce of the future but to have the knowledge and capability of the technologies for that workforce of the future,” Kramer said.

The partnership between OUC and UCF not only helps create solutions but gives students hands-on experience and education.

So where is Mulligan now? He recently graduated from UCF and was hired by OUC to continue research with his PV sensor creation. After some fine-tuning, OUC plans to mass-produce the device and put it to good use.

“A career in STEM is achievable no matter where you come from or what you do,” Mulligan said.

OUC has programs for kids and internships for students. Click here to access the OUC student-teacher resource center.

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About the Author:

Crystal Moyer is a morning news anchor who joined the News 6 team in 2020.