McHenry County College has added a new renewable energy source on its main campus to help power two of its newest programs. The Sustainability Center, Center for Agrarian Learning, and Entrepreneurial Agriculture program at the college recently collaborated to incorporate a solar array that will power one of the high tunnels that students use to grow a variety of crops year-round.
A high tunnel is a series of metal hoops covered in plastic that allows for temperature and water control, no matter the season.
"The solar energy powers several things in the high tunnel that are hooked up to a thermostat for temperature control," said Sheri Doyel, director of the Center for Agrarian Learning. "These include roll-down sides, an exhaust fan and shutters at the peak, and a blower fan that inflates the two layers of plastic on the top. The two layers of plastic -- with that air in between -- helps to insulate crops that are growing in the winter. The roll-down sides and the exhaust fans help to cool the house when it gets too hot in the summer."
High tunnels allow farmers to better control when their plants are ready -- and in turn can help them grow a more profitable business.
"Farmers can plant tomatoes earlier, for instance, and have them ready for harvest in early July rather than early August -- which means they can charge more for those tomatoes before the markets are flooded with field-grown tomatoes," said Doyel. "Likewise, cold-hardy crops like spinach, carrots, and kale can be planted in late August or early September, and still be harvestable as late as December or January, when outdoor crops are long since frozen."
The Center plans to use the new solar panel as not only an on-campus resource, but also as a demonstration for the farming community.
"Farmers sometimes need to locate high tunnels in an area where there is not easy access to electricity. We wanted to provide an example of what it would look like to power a tunnel on solar for farmers who may be looking into this option," said Doyel.
The solar panel was fully funded by an Illinois Green Economy Network Grant. IGEN is a consortium of Illinois community colleges that shares resources, common experiences, best practices and curricula across the state. The program offers yearly grant opportunities to all participating schools. MCC has worked with IGEN on several previous projects, including a larger solar panel array at the college's Shah Center location in McHenry.
"One of the wonderful things about this project is its size," said Kim Hankins, director of the Sustainability Center at MCC. "It's relatively small -- just four panels -- so it makes the idea of using solar energy more approachable, doable, and teachable. Community members and students from a variety of classes will be able to access the energy production data from the online dashboard, or take a walk outside and check them out anytime."
The college is always looking for unique opportunities to educate students and the larger community, added Hankins.
"This fall, we will be working with CAL to provide educational materials and tours at the Green Living Expo in November and developing workshops with area solar vendors on small scale solar options for farmers."