Barry McNamara  |  Published December 09, 2020

Sun Rises on New Project

Business, science students helping test cutting-edge panels for leading solar company.

SOLAR PANELS: Ben Damiani (just right of center) poses with Monmouth science and business faculty... SOLAR PANELS: Ben Damiani (just right of center) poses with Monmouth science and business faculty and students after dropping off eight solar panels from his company, Solar Inventions. Throughout the coming months, Monmouth students will be monitoring the panels atop the Center for Science and Business and devising plans to bring them to market.MONMOUTH, Ill. – Monmouth College business professor Tom Prince doesn’t claim to be Nostradamus, but he’s pretty sure about a prediction he’s made for the 2030s.

“We need to take stress off the (energy) grid,” Prince told his students. “Looking 10 or 20 years out, all I have to worry about is where the fish are biting. It’s you guys who are going to have to deal with these changes.”

Prince is also certain of another prediction: The sun will come up every day.

Those two predictions are behind a project that will keep select Monmouth science and business students occupied for the next several months – monitoring two cutting-edge solar panels mounted atop the College’s Center for Science and Business.

The power of solar

Earlier this fall, those students heard from Ben Damiani, co-founder and chief scientist for Solar Inventions. The company won all three levels of the inaugural American-Made Solar Prize competition. Solar Inventions split the first $1 million prize as part of a group of 20 and the next $1 million in a group of 10, then split the final $1 million with another competitor, for a total of $650,000 in prize money.

Damiani told the students that solar accounts for 1% of the current $1.4 trillion global energy market. But as improvements are made to solar energy storage, he predicted that solar power’s share of the world market could rise to “30, 40, even 50%.”

“It’s the cheapest source of energy, and it’s extremely predictable,” he said. “The sun comes up every day.”

Damiani said solar panels – which have become twice as efficient as they were several years ago – have a lifespan of 25-30 years.

“As efficiency has increased by two times, the price has dropped by 10 times,” he said. “Ten or 20 years ago, the argument was that solar power was only for the rich. Solar was 300 times the cost, but now it’s the cheapest because storage is so much better. It’s easy to install, it’s user-friendly. Now, the estimates are that in the next 10 or 20 years, we’ll see a meaningful percentage of people that can be taken off the grid.”

Why Monmouth?

Monmouth is an attractive option to test Solar Inventions’ new panels because its Midwest location provides some benefits.

“When it gets really cold, when there’s a snow load on the panels – those will be very interesting things for us to track,” said Damiani.

“It’s the classic story of ‘I know a guy.’ I told Chris about it, and he said ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’” Tom Prince

The College was also selected because of a connection between Damiani and Prince.

“I’ve known Ben a long time,” said Prince, whose family became connected to Damiani when he tutored Prince’s daughter at Georgia Tech University. “We talked about this kind of project this summer. He said, ‘I’ll get the panels to you.’”

Prince relayed that development to Monmouth physics professor Chris Fasano, who is also based in the Center for Science and Business and has been tracking results from a pair of solar panels for quite some time.

“It’s the classic story of ‘I know a guy,’” said Prince. “I told Chris about it, and he said ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’”

Working together

“These are cutting-edge solar panels,” said Fasano of the eight panels, which each measure 66-by-40 inches. “We keep looking for ways for science and business to work together.”

Analyzing the pure data, which Fasano believes will be positive, will be helpful to Damiani and the College.

“After we have some real data, we could show that solar really makes sense, and we could make a formal presentation to our Board of Trustees,” said Fasano. “We’d need at least a year’s worth of data. It wouldn’t be an emotional decision. It would be a decision driven purely by the data we collect.”

Prince’s business students come into play as they will help Solar Inventions determine how best to take their product to market. Working on that part of the project are Dominic DeCello ’21 of Dallas, Gavin Gard ’21 of Danville, Illinois, and Bryan Peters ’22 of Addison, Illinois.

“We are the only college or university in the country with this particular technology in the panels. … It’s great for the school, and it’s an ongoing story. Tune in for episode two.” Tom Prince

“We’re sitting here in a building called the Center for Science and Business,” said Prince. “Ben has created this wonderful science. What drives decisions are two things: management decisions and profit. Management decides ‘Is it time for this science to go public?’ This project with Solar Inventions is a way for them to gather the right information to make the most informed decision.”

If it is indeed time, there will be some major companies interested, said Prince.

“Both Ford and General Motors have committed to fully electric vehicles and production, which will include a heavy demand on solar both for production and recharging,” he said.

Damiani said solar companies often work with universities on research, but that the project with Monmouth “might be the only one blending business and science.”

“We are the only college or university in the country with this particular technology in the panels,” said Prince. “Science and business students are working together, and we are planning a busy spring getting this set up and collecting data. It’s great for the school, and it’s an ongoing story. Tune in for episode two.”

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