Allison McGrath: Going Solar

A little more than a year ago, Allison McGrath was already plenty busy with her graduate school commitments. In addition to pursuing a joint master’s with the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS) and the Evans School of Public Affairs, she was working part-time as a student assistant for the Evans School Executive Education program. But then she stumbled across a volunteer project that paralleled her research interests in water management—and that offered a tremendous opportunity to apply her studies to direct practical use.

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McGrath doing her best impression of a solar panel on a hike to Obstruction Point in the Olympics.

“It was kind of random, actually,” says McGrath, who grew up in Ravenna and Kirkland. When her supervisor at the Evans Executive Education Program learned about McGrath’s interest in renewable energy, she introduced her to Stefanie Young, the project manager for UW-Solar, a student-run solar project at the University of Washington. The group’s mission, working with UW Housing and Food Services, is to develop solar installations on buildings throughout campus to promote clean and sustainable power production, improve the resilience of power systems, and reduce the overall carbon footprint of the university.

As it happened, the UW-Solar team was looking for help shoring up a feasibility study to install a new solar array on campus. McGrath had done some policy work involving biofuels, and she was drawn to renewable energy for the same reasons she loves studying water management. “It’s really interesting to me,” she says. “You have to take a systems approach to creating this resilient infrastructure.”

She was sold on the project and joined the team in February 2013. At the time, UW-Solar was operating on a $5,000 grant from the Campus Sustainability Fund (CSF) to complete the feasibility study, and the group was actively applying for grants and other support through several project partners, including CSF, UW Housing and Food Services, and the Bonneville Environmental Foundation.

McGrath plunged right into the mix, and though she had a little catching up to do with some of the science and technology of solar energy, she loved the challenge.

“It was a fun project to be involved in,” she says. “The nice part is that I started out in the finance and policy side, but it was really interdisciplinary and everyone was invited to participate in every step of the process. Even when stuff went over my head, I was still able to be there and learn about it.”

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The solar panel installation at Mercer Court.

One of the most important steps was deciding where to build the solar array. As part of the initial feasibility study, UW-Solar had identified about a dozen suitable buildings around campus, including the possibility of retrofitting an older structure. Yet they ultimately selected one of the new Mercer Court dorms, which were built with the foresight to include infrastructure for solar panels—including electrical closets on the roof instead of in the basement—even though the cost of installing the panels had been prohibitive at the time.

After months of fundraising and outreach, UW-Solar cleared that cost hurdle in spectacular fashion, raising an incredible $174,900, which was more than enough to kick off a full-scale pilot project.

Even with the funds in hand, the stakes were still extremely high to prove the long-term viability of solar energy on campus. “We chose Mercer because we thought it was going to be the most successful,” says McGrath. “Since it was a pilot project, there was a lot riding on it.”

The project itself involved installing 178 solar panels on the roof of one dorm building. They are projected to provide a significant power boost—roughly between 30,000 to 40,000 kilowatt hours a day, or a quarter of the building’s energy demands. It’s a fixed array and is expected to last decades, and it should pay for itself—including the cost of construction—in energy savings in as little as eight years. Plus, though it might seem counterintuitive in Seattle, the rainy weather actually helps keep the panels clear of dust and operating efficiently. In other words, says McGrath, solar can definitely thrive in Seattle.

Construction began on March 10, and the solar panels are now fully installed and up and running. In fact, in early April solar power proponents Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Denis Hayes (President and CEO of Bullitt Foundation, as well as founder of Earth Day) attended an official dedication of the array.

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Denis Hayes (left) and Governor Inslee at the official dedication of the array in April.

The project, of course, is not over. The array includes a Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) system, a type of industrial control system that will acquire energy and atmospheric data from sensors mounted on the solar panel array. A portion of the grant money is funding a new computer lab, which will provide ongoing research opportunities for computer scientists at UW interested in testing energy data system security. As part of the ongoing educational component, UW-Solar is publishing real-time and historical energy production and savings data online. They also created a time-lapse video of the whole installation process, and they’re visiting classrooms to talk about the project and putting together curricula for other groups that want to take on similar projects.

As for McGrath, she’s returned her full attention to her thesis, which involves assessing the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act, originally passed in 1968, and its implementation. She’s been looking at management plans and interviewing folks from the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. “I’m deep in the thick of interviewing right now,” she says, and her plan is to defend later this summer.

And when she does graduate, McGrath knows she’ll leave with far more than just her degree. After all, she helped launch a major solar project—an inspiring testament to the will, creativity and leadership of students—that will have an impact on the University of Washington for years to come.

She hadn’t expected such a powerful experience when she started graduate school, but then that’s the nature of serendipity.

“Life is cool that way,” she says.

Want to Get Involved?
McGrath says UW-Solar is always eager for new student volunteers to replace graduating members and help fuel the next big project. There are about 12 students currently involved with the group, and Professor Jan Wittington from the College of Built Environments is the faculty advisor. If you’re interested, check out the group’s Facebook page to hear about project updates and other cool solar-related news, and McGrath encourages you to contact Stefanie Young. “Stefanie is a great project manager,” she says. “She really brings everyone together.”

Photos: ©; panel installation © UW-Solar; Denis Hayes and Governor Jay Inslee © Anil Kapahi and UW-Solar; the UW-Solar team, McGrath at the far right (below) © Anil Kapahi and UW-Solar.

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