Evergy brings solar panels and substation to campus for faculty, student research


Matthew Kelly

Evergy is funding a substation and solar panels on the John Bardo Center.

Utility company Evergy is funding a new Evergy substation and the installation of four sets of solar panels on the roof of the John Bardo Center. The company will also fund a faculty fellowship in honor of a longtime College of Engineering professor Ward Jewell.

Evergy’s substation on campus will communicate data to a power lab in Wallace Hall.

According to WSU Foundation Vice President Keith Pickus, students and faculty in the College of Engineering directly benefit from this gift, which will provide ample opportunity for engineering research while offering applied learning opportunities to students as they enter their career fields.

“When they were building a new substation for power on the campus, that benefits campus and the entire area,” Pickus said. “They engineered it in a way so the data from the substation, almost in real-time, is going to be communicated to the power labs within the College of Engineering.”

Research may be done on how to protect electric grids from short circuits among other things, he said.

Professor Ward Jewell has been an engineering professor at WSU for more than three decades. He said the relationship between Evergy and WSU goes back years, and that this partnership provides students with incredible research opportunities in the field of renewable energy.

“Solar and wind are very different forms of generation than we are used to using historically to generate our electricity,” Jewell said. “What we’re used to is fossil-fired or nuclear power plants that we have control over — we can control how much they output, and solar and wind output whatever resources (are) available.

“The substation is probably what started this whole conversation. When the Innovation Campus was imagined, Westar realized that the energy substation that was on campus was not large enough to power the Innovation Campus. So that’s when plans for the new substation began.”

KCP&L and Westar are now Evergy.

What WSU gets out of the new substation is primarily data.

“We are getting operating data from the actual system that is serving campus,” Jewell said. “The same set of control devices that they have in the substation, we have those in our research lab.”

The four sets of solar panels on the roof on the John Bardo Center are meant to provide opportunities for faculty and students to research renewable  energy, Pickus said.

“The (Bardo Center) was built with the idea that eventually we would put solar panels on, not so much to provide energy for the building, but rather to once again study how solar electricity is created from solar panels and how it’s used and how you can manage this,” he said.

The panels will be close to the Renewable Energy Lab, which will be named after Evergy in recognition of its gift.

Electrical engineering and computer science professor Visvakumar (Ara) Aravinthan said the gift enables faculty and staff to analyze the data and create new kinds of research problems, as well as figuring out the most efficient way to transmit energy.

“The four different (solar panel) systems are going to be operating in four different ways,” Aravinthan said. “For example, one of the units is going to be (pointed) in four different directions so that we can see what happens when a cloud moves.”

Another system will try to maximize generation based on operating conditions. A third will be purposefully placed in a partially covered area.

“Some of the units that are out there, some of the houses may not be able to produce the maximum based on their roof direction. So to capture all these different real-life scenarios, we have these four different systems,” Aravinthan said. “Then students would be able to visualize what’s happening and then see how the Wichita State grid is trying to react.”

Evergy Vice President of Customer and Community Operations Jeff Martin said Evergy has had a long and fruitful relationship with WSU’s engineering department. This project is a continuation of that relationship, he said.

“From our perspective, what we’re looking at is, how do we integrate some of the newer renewables into the grid system?” Martin said.

He said Evergy is committed to maintaining a diverse portfolio of energy generation assets.

About 20 years ago, they started researching wind power and how to integrate it, Martin said. When would the wind generate? When it wouldn’t, how could they supply energy to end-use customers?

“We’re doing the same thing here with solar and the ability to look at all this different data through the Innovation Campus,” he said. “The faculty and students of Wichita State help us determine how best to do that.”

Pickus said Jewell has been the linchpin in the relationship between Evergy, the department, and his students.

Because Jewell is on a phased retirement program, funding provided by Evergy for the faculty fellowship will help ensure that there is a faculty member who carries Jewell’s legacy into the future. Pickus said part of that faculty member’s responsibility will be to foster the relationship between Evergy and WSU.

“There is still a lot of knowledge that needs to be gained,” Jewell said. “So that when we start generating 10%, 20%, 30% of our electricity from solar, we know how it’s going to behave and we know what the grid needs to do to be able to pull all that solar energy in.”