Unplugged: Students build green trailer to energize tools

Cornell Chronicle September 15, 2020
The solar power-generating trailer, developed by the Cornell University Sustainability Design group, shown here on the Arts Quad.
The solar power-generating trailer, developed by the Cornell University Sustainability Design group, shown here on the Arts Quad.

Around campus academic quads and residential areas, in the thick of autumn’s red and yellow leaves, soon there’ll be something green: a new tool-toting, solar power-generating trailer. Members of the Cornell University Sustainable Design (CUSD) student group have delivered to the Grounds Department a 7-by-12 foot trailer that will cart and energize electric string trimmers, hedge clippers, chainsaws and an electric heavy-duty commercial mower.

Designed and created by CUSD’s Solarize team, the trailer will help Cornell reduce carbon emissions while raising awareness of Cornell’s environmental initiatives, aimed at helping the campus achieve carbon neutrality by 2035, said Dan Schied, director of the Grounds Department.

Said Adam Poluka ’19, the Solarize team’s first project director: “It’s a humble trailer with a lot of good engineering in it.”

Four solar panels on the trailer’s roof can generate 1,151 kilowatt hours of electricity over the course of a year – enough energy to power a 60-watt lightbulb for 19,187 hours or 2.2 years, said Dan Pyrek ’20, the team’s second project director.

“If all the energy is used every day, that is roughly equal to 33 gallons of gasoline or diesel,” Pyrek said. “Using solar energy as a sustainable power source in the trailer offsets annually about 660 pounds of emitted carbon dioxide of gasoline or diesel fuel.”

As a groundskeeping professional, Schied had seen similar tool trailers and approached the CUSD group to see if they would build a solar trailer sturdy enough to withstand rigorous campus requirements.

In 2017, inspired by Cornell’s “living laboratory” concept, CUSD students formed a team, meeting with Schied and his crew to determine specifications. Over four semesters, the team conducted research, secured grants and created an interior design to fit the Grounds Department’s needs.

“The trailer’s system was designed to achieve enough solar power generation to run for hours,” Poluka said, “as well as provide ample electricity storage in the likely event there is a string of cloudy days.”

Ithaca-area engineering firms lent a hand in outfitting the trailer: Taitem Engineering donated the trailer’s solar panels, and TetraTech senior electrical engineer Aaron Abb showed the students how to install components and provide proper electrical grounding.

Students and alumni from the Cornell University Sustainability Design’s Solarize team take short break in this image from building the solar-powered trailer
Students and alumni Ellie Month ’21, from left, Daniel Pyrek '20, Shivani Poddar ’21, Erin Huang ’22 and Adam Poluka ’19, all from the CUSD’s Solarize team, take short break from building the solar-powered trailer that provides energy to outdoor power tools.

Team members liked the trailer so much, they decided to market it. In summer 2019, members of Solarize participated in the local Life Changing Labs startup incubator, which works closely with Entrepreneurship at Cornell. Pyrek and Tameem Jahan ’20, the Solarize team’s third director, spent eight weeks learning about marketing and brand management to bring the trailer’s concept to the marketplace.

“Transportation is a large contributor to humanity’s carbon footprint,” said Jahan. “We are a team of engineers and other professions who are passionate about sustainability and we want to develop this untapped market of mobile solar. We believe that solar is a good solution.”

Current and former students on the Solarize project are: Julia Adler  ’23; Leah Balkin ’19, M.Eng. ’19; Azhir Barodawala, M.Eng. ’18; Connor Bayne ’21, the team’s current lead; Rikki Chiba ’23; Francesco DeMare ’20; Evan Halloran ’18; Kenneth Harlley ’21; Erin Huang ’22; Ada Lian ’22; Simon Liu ’22; Owen MacDonnell ’20; Ellie Month ’21; Ken Park ’18; Shivani Poddar ’21; Teddy Reiss ’19; Mahima Shah ’19; and Jessica Wojnicki ’18.