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Investigating Renewable Energy Data from Photovoltaic (PV) Solar Panels

Carla McAuliffe, Rita Freuder, TERC

In this activity, students look at how much solar energy is generated by photovoltaic panels on rooftops or exposed ground locations at installations around the United States. They explore three different websites that monitor and report solar energy production from panels at many different locations. Next, they examine data from a single location, as well as compare data from two different locations. Lastly, they consider how much of a school's or home's energy needs could be supplied by solar power.

Activity takes four lessons.

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Learn more about Teaching Climate Literacy and Energy Awareness»

Climate Literacy
About Teaching Climate Literacy

About Teaching the Guiding Principle
Other materials addressing GPe
About Teaching the Guiding Principle
Other materials addressing GPg

Energy Literacy

Humans transfer and transform energy from the environment into forms useful for human endeavors.
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4.1 Humans transfer and transform energy.
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Various sources of energy are used to power human activities .
Amount of energy used can be calculated and monitored.
Other materials addressing:
6.8 Calculating and monitoring energy use.
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Human use of energy.

Excellence in Environmental Education Guidelines

1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:C) Collecting information
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C) Collecting information.
1. Questioning, Analysis and Interpretation Skills:E) Organizing information
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E) Organizing information.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.4 Environment and Society:C) Resources
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C) Resources.
2. Knowledge of Environmental Processes and Systems:2.4 Environment and Society:D) Technology
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D) Technology.

Benchmarks for Science Literacy
Learn more about the Benchmarks

Energy from the sun (and the wind and water energy derived from it) is available indefinitely. Because the transfer of energy from these resources is weak and variable, systems are needed to collect and concentrate the energy.
Explore the map of concepts related to this benchmark
Decisions to slow the depletion of energy resources can be made at many levels, from personal to national, and they always involve trade-offs involving economic costs and social values.
Explore the map of concepts related to this benchmark

Notes From Our Reviewers The CLEAN collection is hand-picked and rigorously reviewed for scientific accuracy and classroom effectiveness. Read what our review team had to say about this resource below or learn more about how CLEAN reviews teaching materials
Teaching Tips | Science | Pedagogy | Technical Details

Teaching Tips

  • Before working with solar power output data, students should read the case study to make sure that they understand the photovoltaic (PV) energy productivity of a solar panel and the SI units of power and energy.
  • See teaching strategies included in activity. For example, the developers suggest that the examination of the data and graphs online can be done in groups. Three or four students can be assigned to a location and a time interval and asked to interpret their resulting graphs. Next, groups can be brought back together for a classroom comparison and discussion, especially if a smaller time interval can explain anomalies in data from a larger time interval at the same location.
  • Educators may want to develop some framing questions that will motivate the students to look at the data sets carefully and understand the differences in solar power outputs by location and date and time.
  • Intensive and rich. This lesson is best for an experienced, tech-savvy educator.

About the Science

  • Activity explores solar energy generated by photovoltaic panels.
  • Passed initial science review - expert science review pending.

About the Pedagogy

  • This Earth Exploration Toolbook chapter provides detailed instructions for finding, viewing, downloading, and comparing various datasets. Some educators may find that this level of detail is unnecessary for their students.
  • Students are walked through a particular dataset for a specific installation on the Soltrex Website and asked a few question to ensure that they have understood what they are looking at.
  • Provides good scaffolding for teachers and students. There are show/hide boxes following the posed questions and graphing activities. These boxes contain step-by-step instructions to download and format data.
  • The main part of the activity involves comparing data from two data sets within an Excel spreadsheet. Some educators may feel that this is little more than an Excel skill-building exercise. It is important to encourage students to really look at the data in different ways to understand what they mean.
  • Lots of opportunities for students to interpret graphs of solar output from different data sources including those provided by schools across the country using Solar Schoolhouse.

Technical Details/Ease of Use

  • The notes and screenshots for this exercise are very comprehensive. Excel experience necessary.

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