Green heat

Oct 21, 2010

A $50,000 gift from the Ford Motor Co. Fund will help Kettering students continue their work at Flint's largest urban garden, extending their growing season using solar panels and geothermal heating in their greenhouse.

Kettering University  stepped up to the “challenge,” the Ford Motor Company Fund's 2010 Ford College Community Challenge (Ford C3) that is, and won a $50,000 grant to perform an energy audit and develop a solar/ geo-thermal system for an urban gardening  greenhouse project in Flint, Mich.

Dr. Matthew Sanders’ senior Industrial Engineering capstone class worked with Harvesting Earth Educational Farms, part of the non-profit Youth Karate-Ka, to develop a practical and cost effective method for using renewable energy resources for the Farm’s greenhouse, located in one of the poorest communities in the Flint area. Harvesting Earth Educational Farm teaches local residents horticulture and commercial food production skills.

Sanders, professor of Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering at Kettering, sits on the Genesee County Metro Planning Commission-Solid Waste Implementation Committee with Jackie King, founder and co-director of Karate-Ka and Harvesting Earth Educational Farm.  King approached Sanders about possible solutions to the problem of utilizing the greenhouse during cold weather months. The Ford C3 grant will make it all possible.

“I saw this as an opportunity for our students to apply their engineering education to develop a solution to a real world problem,” said Sanders of the project.  The Kettering students’ goal was to reduce the energy needs of the Harvesting Earth greenhouse, to save money and reduce the potential for negative impact on the environment while enabling the greenhouse to be used from November through March.

An extended growing season will provide a source of sustainable employment to the residents of the surrounding, financially depressed community, according to King. “Our garden has changed the community. We are harvesting the sun, the earth, the wind and our future,” said King of the impact Harvesting Earth Educational farm has on the youth he works with and on the community as a whole.

Following an analysis of the existing greenhouse structure, the Kettering students determined that a geothermal heat pump system-hybrid with solar panels was the answer to extending the greenhouse’s growing season, because it offered a low capital investment and provided for easy installation and easy expansion of facilities.

“Based on data from the national weather center, the students determined there was not enough sun to rely solely on solar power,” said Sanders, “so they decided on a combination of geothermal and solar energy.”

The system they developed includes a Solar Panel Kit with high efficiency polycrystalline solar cells that will use solar energy to turn on the motor that powers two McQuay Geothermal vertical heat pump systems, according to Sanders.  Installation and testing will take place by April 2011.

A geothermal heat pump system utilizes the relatively constant temperature of the earth to heat liquid that is then pumped into pipes in the greenhouse where the energy is released as heat. It works by concentrating naturally existing heat, rather than by producing heat through combustion of fuels, and as a result uses up to 75 percent less electricity than conventional heating or cooling systems.

The students’ research of the Harvesting Earth facilities found that heating and cooling amounted to 35 percent of greenhouse production costs, due to current poor insulation values. In researching what it would take to heat the greenhouse with more traditional methods, they discovered that in moderate-to-cold climate zones it can take up to 2,500 gallons of propane, currently costing around $5,000, to keep a 2,000 sq. ft. greenhouse producing all winter. Approximately 350 tons of CO2 per acre, per year, is released from structures heating with propane, contributing to global climate change.

In addition to installing a geothermal system at the Harvesting Earth facility, the Kettering students suggested several insulating techniques should be employed, including: insulating the foundation and sidewalls, and repairing and correcting any cracks in the structure.

Sanders is interested in expanding the reach of the project by developing learning materials for classroom training and evaluation metrics for local government agencies proposing the use of solar/geothermal energy in new buildings or large renovation projects.

He feels the project could increase public awareness of the concept that improving interior temperatures in winter by utilizing natural resources is achievable, citing the  greenhouses with limited insulation  as an example of how it can be accomplished.

Started in 2008, the Ford College Community Challenge (Ford C3) is a national challenge grant competition that recognizes colleges and universities that utilize a school's resources to address a community need.  The theme for this year's proposal is - Building Sustainable Communities – using alternative energy in a unique way. Unlike many traditional college grant programs, Ford C3 requires colleges to create project proposals that have significant student input, involvement and leadership from beginning to end.

“Winning proposals have a distinctive student perspective on what it means to have a sustainable community,” said Mike Schmidt, director of Education and Community Development at Ford Motor Company Fund.  “Each year, we select five winning proposals to receive this one-time award.  We like the Kettering proposal since it involved collaboration between university and community to extend the growing season of an important community greenhouse, and we hope lessons learned here can be used elsewhere.”

Other funders of the project include the Ruth Mott Foundation and the United Way.