It only seems appropriate to mark the anniversary of the Reynolda Gardens’ greenhouses and conservatory with a modern addition. Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds set out over a hundred years ago to use Reynolda Gardens as a model of self-sufficiency for local gardeners and, even more,for the community.
These values are similarly shared with the larger community of Wake Forest University, whose motto is “Pro Humanitate,” which is translated as “for the betterment of humanity.” Ravish Paul, Energy Manager for the university, says his office is “always on the lookout for opportunities that benefit all.” Therefore, the decision to put solar panels on the education wing at Reynolda Gardens was not just a small demonstration of solar energy potential for the university, but also an opportunity to “educate and encourage the community to invest in a living which is in harmony with nature,” according to Paul.
During the spring 2011 semester, students in Physics and Chemistry of the Environment (PHY/ CHM 120) researched and reported on a variety of energy efficiency and alternative energy proposals for the greenhouse education wing. Among the recommendations was a report on the feasibility of a solar photovoltaic installation. Based in part on this hands-on learning exercise, Professor Richard Williams secured a donation of a solar photovoltaic array for the gardens. Though the donation did not match up with the specific requirements of the historic structure, the university’s energy manager was able to find a unit that was a good fit.
In February 2013, we installed the array on the south-facing roof of the education wing. Photovoltaics use solar cells to convert sunlight into energy. When several cells are connected in a panel or array, the power generation capacity is increased. Once the energy is generated, it is sent to the inverter, which converts it into a usable form. The usable energy is then supplied to the utility company’s electric meter to either slow it down or spin it in reverse. It is projected that these panels will offset ten percent of the greenhouses’ energy usage each year.
Why solar? The Environment North Carolina Research and Policy Center found that our state has the potential to collect twice as much sunlight as Germany, the world’s leader in solar energy production. Photovoltaics are a common sustainable energy source and, in terms of global importance, rank third, behind wind and hydropower, in providing renewable energy. At the end of 2012, one hundred countries worldwide were using photovoltaics.
In many international cases, photovoltaic usage has become more economically viable than traditional energy sources. For example, citizens in Cambodia can purchase a solar lantern at the equivalent of twenty-five U.S. dollars and use it for years without any additional cost, while fuel for a kerosene lantern runs around thirty U.S. dollars per year.
One of the most influential thinkers of our time, Lester Brown, founder of the World Watch Institute, had this to say about solar power, “The growth in the use of solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity can only be described as explosive, expanding by seventy-four percent in 2011. The world’s current 70,000 megawatts of photovoltaic installations can, when operating at peak power, match the output of seventy nuclear power plants.” Photovoltaics are not the only way to use the sun’s energy. The pace of solar energy development is accelerating as the installation of rooftop solar water heaters takes off. Unlike solar photovoltaic panels that convert solar radiation into electricity, these “solar thermal collectors” use the sun’s energy to heat water, space, or both.
With issues of poor air quality, the destruction of natural areas, and the possible degradation of our groundwater arising from the use of fossil fuels, it is our privilege and responsibility to explore energy production in renewable and healthy ways. I am reminded of a quote by Thomas Edison, “I’d put my money on the Sun, what a source of Power! I hope we don’t have to wait until oil and coal run out, before we tackle that.” We hope that the installation at Reynolda Gardens is a step towards a better understanding of solar power’s place in the energy spectrum and a cleaner environment.
Since its inception, Reynolda has served as a model of natural innovation and education. Just as Mr. and Mrs. Reynolds used the Gardens to show others what could be done if given the means, we invite that same spirit in the work we do today. The greenhouses and conservatory, even after one hundred years, are an integral part of our mission. It is our vision that through our educational endeavors and our example we will inspire awareness and an improved understanding of our natural world.
By Amanda Lanier, Curator of Education, Reynolda Gardens of Wake Forest University