Two Engineers Harness Solar Power to Help Sandy Victims
Back in 2010, when graduation still seemed remote and intangible, Rob van Haaren and Garrett Fitzgerald agreed to celebrate their Ph.Ds—whenever they might finish—by piloting a pair of motorcycles from New York City to California. Van Haaren was from Holland, and he wanted to see the country.
From left: Garrett Fitzgerald and Rob van Haaren in the Rockaways after Hurricane Sandy
Of course, their plan had a unique twist that seemed only appropriate for two doctoral candidates in earth and environmental engineering, who share a passion for renewable energy and low-impact living: Van Haaren, 25, and Fitzgerald, 27 planned to consume no gasoline during their cross-country odyssey. Instead, they would modify electric powered vehicles, build solar arrays they could tow behind them in small trailers to harvest the sun’s energy, and recharge their rigs while they give demonstrations about the vehicle’s systems.
Graduation is finally here for Fitzgerald—van Haaren will follow next fall—and the pair’s ambitious plan hasn’t exactly proceeded as expected. And thank God it hasn’t—just ask the hundreds of Hurricane Sandy victims relying on the pair’s charging station to power the lights, phone chargers, refrigerators, computers and clinic housed inside the St. Gertrude Parish and Youth Center in Far Rockaway Beach, Queens.
“It was always about educational outreach,” Fitzgerald says. “But we never could have predicted this.” Says van Haaren, “Sandy came obviously as a horrible storm, but for us it was a good way to make use of this system.”
When the pair initially dreamed up their cross country idea, neither of the two students had even built anything solar. Their dissertations also had little to do with the project. Fitzgerald was focused on finding ways to permanently store carbon dioxide in the ground or permafrost areas. Van Haaren specialized in finding ways to integrate renewable energy sources into the electricity grids.
Yet they dove in with enthusiasm in 2011, after months of discussing the idea, they decided first to jettison the motorcycles in favor of an electric car, and then set up a website, wrote letters and lobbied potential sponsors. In the end, they raised about $14,000 from supporters and about $21,000 in donated solar panels and electronics from corporate sponsors, including solar panel manufacturer First Solar, and a company called Outback Power.
In summer 2012 they mounted their portable solar array, which has 72 panels and measures 20 feet by 60 feet when fully deployed, on a modified landscaping trailer. They believed it would be capable of charging 110 volt and 220 volt systems—enough power for about 200 miles of driving on a sunny day. To test it out, they hooked up with an electric vehicle advocacy group called “Driving Congress Green,” towed their rig to Hershey, Penn. to provide free power to food vendors at a FarmAid concert site. The pair continued to tag along with the organization afterwards, displaying their solar arrays and charging their electric vehicles at events held in statehouses across the northeast and South.
Then Hurricane Sandy hit and a colleague asked for help. Van Haaren and Fitzgerald towed their vehicle down to St. Gertrude’s, where relief workers were handing out food, water and blankets and desperately needed power.
“Before us the power was being provided by generators,” Fitzgerald says. “But there was a fuel shortage going on, so it was not a steady supply of electricity.”
On Thanksgiving, their Columbia rig cranked out enough juice to feed 150 people at a solar-powered turkey dinner.
As power returned, Van Haaren and Fitzgerald were contacted by organizers working with the Museum of Modern Art and PS1. They agreed to move their solar array to Rockaway Beach to power an art installation and public space aimed at providing a gathering place for local residents and raising awareness about extreme weather events.
Fitzgerald already has a job lined up at the Rocky Mountain Institute consulting on renewable energy related fields. Van Haaren is starting a company, called DivvySolar.com, that will help people invest in solar installations.
As for their road trip? Prospects remain hazy. “Everything about the system works, we just need to locate the vehicle to do it,” he says. “If we can’t do it this summer, we will just go straight in to the working world.”
—by Adam Piore
|After 60 Years of Public Service, Diplomat Finally Earns His Ph.D.
At 83, the former ambassador to the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia has completed his dissertation in Slavic languages and literatures and is graduating from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
|Nursing Graduate Well Schooled in Cancer Care
Alfredo Axtmayer II will have a unique perspective to share with his patients when he becomes a nurse practitioner with a specialty in oncology. In 2008, when he was 27, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. It is now in remission.
|College Graduate Starts Volunteer Program to Comfort Elderly
Ashley Shaw, whose major is biology with a concentration in art history, started the “At Your Service Volunteer Program” for Columbia students at the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center.
|Software Developer Combines Technology Skills With Journalism in New Dual-Degree Program
Rashmi Raman, along with three other dual-degree candidates, will become one of the first graduates of a two-year program with Columbia Engineering that aims to teach professionals the technical aspects of both digital media and news production.
|Medical Student Helps Build Bridges to Neighboring Community
In her last year of medical school, Camila Mateo, the daughter of two Dominican-born pediatricians, created a website to help others at the medical school better understand the community around them.
|Brian Mulhall, From the Navy to the Law
In five years of military service in the Navy and over the past three years at Columbia Law School, Mulhall has made great use of opportunities that have landed him a job in the National Security Division at the Justice Department after he graduates in May.
|Royal Navy Officer Becomes Journalist
After four years and a day in the Royal Navy, Christopher Harress pursued a bachelor’s in journalism and landed an internship with the Edinburgh Evening News before being accepted to Columbia Journalism School.
|Physical Therapist Learned Benefits of Program Long Before Graduation
Nashwa Khalil knew the benefits of physical therapy long before she enrolled in the doctor of physical therapy program at Columbia’s College of Physicians and Surgeons. She began physical therapy as an infant after a birth injury in her left arm.
Columbia University mourns the death of Robert Belknap, professor emeritus in the Department of Slavic Languages, who died March 17. An expert in Russian literature, particularly Dostoyevsky, he also taught Literature Humanities in the Core Curriculum for 50 years and influenced generations of Columbia students. For more information, please visit this page.
Mary Bassett, associate professor of clinical epidemiology at the Mailman School of Public Health, was named New York City’s commissioner of health.
University Professor Ronald Breslow won the 2014 American Institute of Chemists Gold Medal, the AIC’s highest award.