A 20-panel solar farm, which will generate enough power to meet the needs of an average single-family home, now floats on a University of Central Florida retention pond, thanks to the ingenuity and determination of five graduating mechanical engineering students.

They spent their senior year designing the experimental floating system under the supervision of David Norvell, assistant vice president of sustainability initiatives at UCF. The team’s “Floatovoltaics” system also serves as their senior design project, a capstone requirement for graduation in May.

The power generated from the 5-kilowatt prototype will feed into the campus power grid and gives UCF the opportunity to test the technology. If the farm performs as expected, the university could scale it up to a 900-kilowatt system that would generate enough power to fully offset the energy used by Bright House Networks Stadium.

“The primary purpose of this project is to conserve land and reach UCF’s commitment to become climate neutral by 2050,” Norvell said. “A floating system on a retention pond is the best solution, because installing a roof-based system large enough to generate that much power on existing buildings requires expensive retrofitting.”

The student team assembled and launched the floating array late March on a pond near the stadium.

“This solar array will leave our mark on the UCF campus and ultimately a small mark on the world’s changing climate,” said engineering student Rubin York, who already has a job lined up with Harris Corp. as a design engineer for satellite mesh reflectors after he graduates in May. “We hope our project will encourage future students to think globally and to strive to make a difference.”

See video clips of students launching the array:

Pushing from land to water: https://youtu.be/Mz2xAOM8cWM

Pulling into place with cables: https://youtu.be/lE51Blhg8FA

The floating system creates an innovative new use for the pond beyond stormwater management and will provide an unintended environmental benefit, according to Norvell. Limiting the amount of sunlight penetration into the water will slow the growth of algae and provide shelter and hiding spots for fish, he said. The system could also open the door for future solar research, such as learning how cooler environments affect solar array efficiency and lifespan.

The system’s floating base uses floatation devices made of high-density polyethylene, a common and durable plastic, and is anchored by steel cabling and chains at the pond banks. The team has accounted for wave patterns, wind and other environmental considerations in their design that is similar in concept to a floating dock.

Engineering student Geoffrey Gregory, who will enter UCF’s electrical engineering master’s degree program while interning at the UCF-based Florida Solar Energy Center, was thrilled at the opportunity to work on the project.

“We came into this project very excited to work with renewable energy sources, but never expected a project of this scale,” Gregory said. “It’s the perfect opportunity for us to help UCF reach its sustainability goals while providing us a hands-on education that we would have never experienced in the classroom.”

Others on the team who are expected to graduate this May are:

  • Rudolph Jara of Palm Bay, who has a job lined up as a service planner for Florida Power & Light.
  • William Rumplik of Orlando, who intends to work for a Cincinnati-based renewable-energy company.
  • Rebecca Shea, of Cape Coral, who plans to move to Colorado and work in the renewable energy sector (solar and hydropower).
  • See UCF’s published climate-action plan, which calls for 15 percent of the university energy to come from renewables by 2020.

    “Floatovoltaics” is among 126 projects made by 557 graduating seniors participating in the UCF College of Engineering & Computer Science’s Senior Design Day Showcase, April 22.