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Solar panels relocated to Creighton Retreat Center

Jul 26, 2023
2 min Read
Eugene Curtin
Solar Panels Griswold Retreat Center

In the small town of Griswold, Iowa, home to fewer than 1,000 people, a spacious gravel lot points to the future. Newly home to 192 solar panels (pictured above), the lot now houses a significant source of energy powering the Creighton University Retreat Center.

The rural serenity is a pleasant change for the panels. For 11 years, they sat atop an approximately 400-panel raised platform along Cuming Street in busy downtown Omaha, near the teeming North Freeway. There, they towered over an asphalt parking lot that is currently giving way to Creighton’s new CL and Rachel Werner Center for Health Sciences Education, itself the recipient of a cutting-edge solar-panel system.

Envisioning a $75 million structure like the Werner Center involves many questions, but the one that engaged the attention of Andrew Baruth, PhD, a physics professor and director of the University’s Office of Sustainability Programs, and three of his students at the time, was, “What’s going to happen to the solar panels?”

“The panels were only about halfway through their lifespan and had 10 to 15 years left,” says Max Markuson DiPrince, BS’22, MS’23. “We needed to devise some sort of plan.”

The problem combined two characteristics of student life at Creighton — a commitment to sustainability and the opportunity for undergraduate and graduate research.

“There are a wide, wide, wide variety of research topics that students pursue here at Creighton,” DiPrince says. “One of the big things that we had to do in this project was to understand how solar energy works. Chemistry, of course, but also financial research, understanding returns on investment, power-purchase agreements, tax incentives. Financial matters are extremely important. They make solar energy possible.”

Max DiPrince
Max Markuson DiPrince, BS’22, MS’23, helped determine where to relocate nearly half of the 400 solar panels removed from the Cuming Street parking lot.

Baruth says DiPrince, along with Alex Webert, BS’22, and Carlos Ayala, took on the challenge. After researching the possibility of relocating the panels elsewhere on campus — none of which proved financially feasible — they settled on the retreat center, a 154-acre wooded area about one hour east of Omaha. There, in an extensive gravel lot that required minimal infrastructure preparation, the panels proved not just feasible but projected a 77.5% return on investment by 2038.

The panels were decommissioned in the fall of 2021, stored on campus and transferred to Griswold earlier this year. The installation was completed in May. The repurposed panels account for about half the solar generating power of the former Cuming Street display. Unused panels remain in campus storage awaiting a new deployment plan.

The Griswold project was, Baruth believes, a rare opportunity for students.

“There are student groups at other institutions who may get the opportunity to help design an array in their academic career,” he says, “but I am completely unaware of any student group that got the opportunity to work through the entire decommission and redeploy process for an actual solar array that they could see and touch.”

The panels were only about halfway through their lifespan and had 10 to 15 years left.
— Max Markuson DiPrince, BS’22, MS’23

Kathy Kemler, retreat center director, said the repurposed panels will have a significant impact, powering five of the center’s 13 buildings, one of which is the home of the center’s chaplain and spiritual director, the Rev. Bob Dufford, SJ.

Kemler said the students, under the direction of Baruth and with the technical support of Omaha’s Miller Electric Company, installed the solar panel system efficiently and in a place of maximum exposure to the sun. Most of all, she said, the students literally laid the foundation for continued solar power.

“The infrastructure they put in place will remain, so if and when we need to replace the solar panels, we will have the necessary framework to do it,” she said.

And then there is the community involvement aspect.

“We here at the retreat center are always looking for opportunities to be a good community partner with Griswold,” she says, “and we now have the opportunity to channel any excess energy the panels produce to MidAmerican Energy, which makes us a contributor to the community.”