The Catholic University of America

Nov. 8, 2011

Catholic University Brings Solar Energy to Franciscan Monastery

  Franciscan solar photo 1

Alongside his engineering students, Associate Professor Scott Mathews adjusts the solar energy system that delivers electricity to the Franciscan Monastery's greenhouse.

Winter is coming, which means the brown-habited friars of the Franciscan Monastery in Northeast D.C. must move the potted palm and banana trees and other summer-loving tropical flora from their 42-acre, Eden-like garden into the monastery’s large glass greenhouse. And that means the pressure’s on for Catholic University electrical engineering graduate student Tim Corrigan of Mineola, N.Y.

Corrigan, 21, is helping connect the greenhouse heaters to a sophisticated solar energy system he and fellow Catholic University engineering students built last year to turn sunlight into off-grid or utility-free electricity for the Franciscans.

The collaboration between the monastery and Catholic University hints of Divine Providence.

While the monastery’s secretariat Brother John-Sebastian, O.F.M., was searching for ways to go green — the Vatican as well as many of the Franciscan monasteries in the Holy Land use solar power — Catholic University Associate Professor Scott Mathews was looking for a hands-on project for his students in the new Alternative and Renewable Energy program — and one that would be in line with Catholic University’s mission of service.

Brother John-Sebastian called, and Mathews responded with a plan to build a solar energy system. “It was a win-win situation for both sides,” says Brother John-Sebastian, whose religious order was founded in the 1200s by Saint Francis of Assisi, the Catholic Italian ascetic mystic who is now the patron saint of ecology.

The monastery committed $4,000 and space for the project, adjacent to the greenhouse on the south-facing parcel where the friars used to farm. The School of Engineering invested $10,000 and David Wells of Northside Solar, a solar energy company, provided $5,000 in equipment.                                                       

Franciscan solar photo 2  

On the grounds of the Franciscan Monastery in Northeast D.C., the 1.2-kilowatt photovoltaic array built by Catholic University students is stationed where the friars used to farm.


Then Mathews led a small group of his engineering students in an extra-credit project in which they constructed a 1.2-kilowatt photovoltaic array. The system consists of six solar panels in two, large square trays that sit at either end of a T-shaped metal stand that’s planted in a base in the ground.

On weekend afternoons, from February through May, the group surveyed land, dug a large hole for the footer, poured concrete, laid underground piping to protect delicate wires from the elements, and installed the solar panels, batteries, an inverter to convert the solar DC power to AC power, and a state-of-the-art two-axis tracking system. That means the solar panels — like the heads of heliotropic poppies — follow the sun as it arcs east to west through the day, and even as the sun’s path varies with the seasons.

The solar system is a workhorse, producing enough energy to run several industrial ventilation fans “24-7,” says Joe Bozik, treasurer of the Franciscan Monastery Garden Guild and one of 40 volunteer gardeners. During sunlight hours, the system powers the fans and batteries, which in turn keep the fans running at night. There has been such an “abundance” of electricity, notes Brother John-Sebastian, that the monastery installed extra lights.

This fall, in their senior design project, a number of Professor Mathews’ undergraduate students are working on upgrades to the system. And in his independent study project, master’s candidate Corrigan is fine-tuning the tracker, installing a weather station, and developing an Internet-based system to monitor environmental conditions and power levels from afar.

In the coming months and years, Mathews expects the solar energy system to continue energizing the greenhouse — as well as new students in his photovoltaics courses.

“It is my experience that showing students a real, working system is much more effective than showing them pictures in a textbook,” says Mathews.

At the same time, Mathews is searching for funding from other sources for another class project — to develop low-cost, portable solar energy power stations for the poor in developing nations where there’s little access to electricity.

It’s “missionary type research,” observes Corrigan. 


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