Students' solar experiment wins Naval Science Award

Newburyport Daily News - March 22, 2013

By Warren Russo

WEST NEWBURY — In response to renewed interest in solar power, a pair of Pentucket Regional High School seniors decided to find out whether landfill sites that otherwise have no redeeming value might be the best place for solar panel arrays.

Working with a $2,000 grant from The Marjot Foundation, which funds independent environmental research by high school students, West Newbury’s Will Craig and Dan Ryan conducted a year-long field experiment to answer that question.

For their efforts, they won the Naval Science Award from the Office of Naval Research at this year’s Region V Science Fair in Somerville.

With the approval of town officials, Craig and Ryan created simulated solar panels out of plywood sheets. Then, they mounted the 45-degree, south-facing panels on the capped landfill on Georgetown Road in West Newbury.

Thanks to the grant, they were able to purchase industrial ballast mounts for their plywood panels, so the field experiment was as accurate and authentic as if they had used actual solar panels. Since the goal of the project was simply to determine whether the shade created by ballast-mounted panels would have any adverse effect on plant life or cause erosion on a capped, grassy landfill, actual solar panels were not necessary, they said.

After identifying all the plant life in the area, Craig and Ryan monitored their experiment from April through December, recording any changes that occurred. They also researched the growth characteristics of each plant, installed erosion pins to track any adverse effects on the topsoil, established control points for reference and recorded average growth heights and standard deviations month by month.

After conducting what is being called one of the most comprehensive study of its kind, the two high-school wizards analyzed their findings.

They concluded that plants that had been shaded by the panels simply compensated for the changing light by altering their growth patterns. Their photographs of the field experiment bear out their findings, showing lush plant growth in the shade of the panels and no erosion of the topsoil.

Their final report concludes that since ballast-mounted solar panels have no effect on erosion and minimal effect on vegetation, landfills are an optimal location for solar arrays.

One of the side benefits of their field experiment is that Craig and Ryan will now serve as role models for other area high-schoolers with a scientific bent and a concern for the environment.

The Marjot Foundation welcomes applications for environmentally related research from students in grades 9 through 11 at public high schools in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Vermont. While private school students may also apply, preference is given to public school students. The maximum funding available for each project selected is $5,000. The application deadline is April 1. For more information on the grant process, email creinisc@mbi.edu or call the foundation office at 508-548-8509.

Pentucket High seniors Will Craig and Dan Ryan of West Newbury won the Naval Science Award from the Office of Naval Research for their findings in a solar panel experiment on a town landfill.

Pentucket High seniors Will Craig and Dan Ryan of West Newbury won the Naval Science Award from the Office of Naval Research for their findings in a solar panel experiment on a town landfill.

Caitlin Feehery