Students, Monks Collaborate in Going 'Green'

Future Engineers Install, Fine-tune Solar Energy System at Monastery

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By Ann Schneible

WASHINGTON, D.C., NOV. 29, 2011 ( Following the example set by Benedict XVI and the Vatican, students from the Catholic University of America are helping the Franciscan Monastery of the Holy Land in America to go “green.” 

As winter fast approaches in the Northeastern Washington D.C. area, the Franciscan friars relocate the potted tropical flora from their scenic 42-acre lot to the monastery’s large glass greenhouse. 

Tim Corrigan of Mineola, New York, is an electrical engineering graduate student at Catholic University who has had the task of designing a system that will allow the greenhouse to rely solely on solar energy. Corrigan, 21, is helping connect the greenhouse heaters to a sophisticated solar energy system he and fellow Catholic University engineering students built last year to turn sunlight into off-grid or utility-free electricity for the Franciscans.

The collaboration between the monastery and Catholic University is being seen as Providential. The monastery’s secretary, Friar John-Sebastian, had been searching for ways to make the monastery more energy-efficient. Meanwhile, Catholic University Associate Professor Scott Mathews was looking for a hands-on project for his students in the new alternative and renewable energy program — and one that would be in line with Catholic University’s mission of service.

Friar Sebastian called on Catholic University, having worked with them in the past for the construction of their on-site hermitages. He explained that Catholic University “followed the Franciscan and Catholic Church’s philosophy of rebuilding and leaving less of an impact on the environment — it certainly is a Franciscan charism — and we thought that the greenhouse project would go hand in hand with the school.”

At the same time, Mathews, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Catholic University, was having difficulty coming up with extra-curricular projects for students in the alternative energy program. “By just sort of fortuitous coincidence,” explained Mathews, “Brother Sebastian heard about the alternative energy program [at Catholic University], gave me a call, and asked if there was any way we could collaborate. It turned out to be just the perfect collaboration.”

Foundational principles

The desire for the Franciscan Monastery to minimize its impact on the environment is very much in keeping with the charisms of the order. St. Francis, the Italian ascetic mystic who founded the Franciscan order in the 12th century, is known for his poetic love for nature and its expression of God’s glory; fittingly, John Paul II named St. Francis the patron of “those who promote ecology,” as Benedict XVI recalled just this week.

“It was part of St. Francis’ charism from day one,” says Friar Sebastian. “It’s a foundation stone to our way of living: to live simply, to leave less of an impact on the world as far as our carbon footprints and causing damage. It’s instinctual. It’s a part of who we are. And so, at every opportunity, we seek out ways in which we can leave less of an imprint, and to be good stewards of the world, and use the natural resources we have been provided.”

On weekend afternoons, from February through May, the group surveyed land, dug a large hole for the footer, poured concrete, laid underground piping to protect delicate wires from the elements, and installed the solar panels, batteries, and an inverter to convert the solar DC power to AC power. Grimaud Kouwenaar, a senior in Catholic University’s alternative energy program in its electrical engineering department, volunteered to help install the solar panels at the monastery. “I believe a lot of engineers don’t get the hands-on experience for doing such things,” he said, explaining how the multidisciplinary aspects of the project helped him to gain a better understanding of solar energy from an engineering perspective.

According to Joe Bozik, treasurer of the Franciscan Monastery Garden Guild and one of its 40 volunteer gardeners, the solar system is capable of producing enough energy to run several industrial ventilation fans day and night. During sunlight hours, the system powers the fans and batteries, which in turn keep the fans running at night. The new solar panels are so efficient that, not only are they capable of collecting enough energy to ensure that the system is able to run constantly, but that there is ample energy left over. According to Brother John-Sebastian, the monastery has installed extra lights to compensate for the amount of energy being produced.

In order to optimize the effectiveness of the solar panels, a state-of-the-art two-axis tracking system was also installed to allow the solar panels to follow the sun as it arcs east to west through the day, even as the sun’s path varies with the seasons. This fall, in the Catholic University senior design project, a number of Professor Mathews’ undergraduate students will be working on upgrades to the system. For his senior project, student Kouwenaar is fine-tuning the tracking system that is already in place. 

Meanwhile, master’s candidate Corrigan is also fine-tuning the tracking system, installing a weather station, and developing an Internet-based system to monitor environmental conditions and power levels from afar.

“As educators,” says Mathews, “we really have to be able to make an argument that there’s an educational benefit from these kind of projects. So in addition to the experiences these kids get from installing the system, if they continue to work on it in subsequent semesters, they really get an educational benefit from it.”


In the coming months and years, Mathews expects the solar energy system to continue energizing the greenhouse — as well as new students in his photovoltaics courses. At the same time, Mathews is searching for funding from other sources for another class project — to develop low-cost, portable solar energy power stations for the poor in developing nations where there’s little access to electricity. 

“We really loved it,” said Mathews. “And as long as we can find funds to keep doing this project, as long as there are people willing to put up money to do it, we’ll jump at the chance. The Franciscan Monastery was really very generous, not only generous in terms of allowing us to use their property, but very generous in terms of providing us with some of the funds we needed to do this. And if we can do another project with them, or if we get on some other partners outside the university, that will be as generous as they have been, we’ll definitely do that.”

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