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Columbia students share solar panels with NY church

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Green technology came up a few times in President Obama’s State of the Union speech Tuesday — particularly the use of solar and wind energy. But if the president was looking for a pithy example of how this kind of technology is being used, practically, he could have called up Garrett Fitzgerald and Rob van Haaren.

Both PhD students from Columbia’s school of engineering, Fitzgerald and van Haaren have spent the past few months putting their solar power expertise to the test and helping out those in need in the process.

After superstorm Sandy hammered New York, Fitzgerald and van Haaren — who originally built their solar panels for a campaign to raise awareness about green energy — decided to take their rig out of storage and to Rockaway Beach, which was hit hard by the storm. They settled their solar panels in a lot behind St. Gertrude’s church, which lost power during the storm.

The panels were on standby again this past weekend as the area braced for another winter storm, though they luckily weren’t needed to power the church again.

The two men designed the panels originally for a cross-country trip, where they would ride vehicles powered by the sun. They gathered sponsorships for the trip from major solar power companies such as First Solar and Outback Power systems, but ran into a snag when they realized that they would rather make the trip in cars than the motorcycles they’d originally envisioned. So with their planned 3,200-miles trip on hold, the two men thought that they could use the panels to help out in the meantime. So, with approval from their sponsors, they took the unit from its New Jersey storage facility and drove it to New York.

On a full charge, one of the panels can power a vacuum cleaner for six hours, van Haaren said, making them perfect for offering help to those affected by power outages. And the reaction to the panels so far has been great, van Haaren said.

“[At first,] people walking by didn’t know what it was,” he said. “They were joking, saying ‘what are these things? Giant iPads?’” But once the two men explained what was going on, they said that people became interested in it very quickly.

“They were charging their laptops and cellphones,” he said. Eventually the church used the power to set up a small medical clinic, as well as a small cooking area that members of the community eventually used to cook Thanksgiving dinner.

Van Haaren said he’s been pleased with the way the panels have held up since they first brought them to the church on Nov. 10.

“They were built to be outside and to withstand the weather so we’re not worried about that at all,” he said.

The men have already gotten inquiries about producing the panels for sale, but van Haaren said they aren’t that interested in the idea. While the duo isn’t quite sure what to do next with their technology, van Haaren said they have kicked around the idea of starting up a crowdfunded project to make a more portable, accessible version of the solar panels to spread the word about green energy.

“Garrett and I originally started this project for education,” he said. “We’re thinking about starting a Kickstarter project, but we’re not sure.”

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