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Follow the Sun: a Maryland Initiative

by Amy McNeal

It has become more imperative than ever for the US to reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. Consumers and municipalities alike are looking at carbon-free options for power. Solar power is one of the strongest of these. Solar power for homes and even vehicles has been part of the alternative fuels discussion for many years. Among others, the state of Maryland has been actively pursuing ways to increase the use of solar in the state. One of the new technologies that has been developed there is Solar Tracking.

The idea behind Solar Tracking is simple. Use devices that are pointed directly at the sun all day for maximum efficiency. The various devices use GPS technology to determine the exact position of the sun, then turn to orient themselves for maximum exposure. The cells therefore capture more light and thus create more power than static solar panels. The devices work differently from traditional solar panels in that they allow the use of smaller devices that can be tied into existing infrastructure more easily.

Companies throughout the state are working on developing new devices that promote the use of solar power. Advanced Technology & Research Incorporated in Columbia, Maryland, has developed four devices that use Solar Tracking technology. The company's background in robotics helped it develop effective ways to make solar power technology more easily integrated into existing landscapes.

"We are very optimistic about the response to our different solar tracking products. Tracking the sun just makes sense. You can make 30-40% more power by just pointing the panel at the sun! It's not rocket science, but it is not easy to do it robustly and at a reasonable cost. We used our robotics and controls background to design a pretty smart system that figures out everything by itself, right out of the box." says ATR Vice President of Energy Systems Rob Lundahl.

ATR has taken the Solar Tracking idea and developed several devices that incorporate the technology. The first, a single panel tracker, is meant to be installed on a conventional lamppost or utility pole. This device is primarily intended for use in industrial parks, small retail centers, and rural park-and-rides. Power is produced by the panel and fed back to the utility grid through the existing power lines.

Another type can be installed on a simple 6x6 wooden post. This device, intended for use in homes, holds 2 solar panels and produces over 470 watts of power that is delivered to a home's electrical panel. Several units can be "daisy chained" together for greater output. The industrial version of these devices is a large solar tracker that can be retrofitted to a wind turbine pole. This type of hybrid system captures power from both solar and wind sources to smooth out natural variation in light and breeze.

"Developing a renewable energy product and gaining market share is a challenge. I think it is more of a reflection on the overall economic situation than the technology itself. Money is tight for everybody. However, I think everybody knows that these technologies are the future, and we need to get in front of it with American-made products." continues Lundahl.

Maryland has been actively pursuing plans to increase the use of electric cars and make electric vehicle charging stations more available as a part of its "Project Sunburst" initiative. ATR recently debuted the Solar Tracking Car Charger with an installation on Old Georgetown Road in Bethesda, MD. This solar array is perched on top of a single pole for a small footprint. Devices like the Solar Tracking Car Charger are small enough to fit in parking lots without extensive retrofitting or construction. This one was installed with support from the Maryland Energy Administration and the U.S. Department of Energy through a Clean Energy Economic Development Initiative (CEEDI) grant.

Amy McNeal