For the past year, students and faculty at the School of Engineering of Guaratinguetá (FEG) of São Paulo State University, in Brazil, have been busy creating a cycle of sustainability on their campus.
Through the FEG-Sustentável project, the team has installed a photovoltaic solar energy generation system, made outdoor campus lighting more efficient, built a recycling center, and designed a prototype rainwater-harvesting machine. (Sustentável means sustainable in Portuguese.)
IEEE Member Thiago Matheus Martins de Moraes, who founded FEG-Sustentável and is its director, is pursuing a master's degree in management and sustainability at the university. The core team includes a doctoral student studying medical science, an electrical engineering grad student, and two EE undergrads. An additional 10 undergrads and 80 volunteers, including faculty members, lend a hand when they can. They have helped with tasks such as installing solar panels and developing the recycling center.
One of the project's first steps was to install 18 photovoltaic panels on the campus to generate solar energy. The university used to get all its electricity from the national power grid. In Brazil, with each kilowatt hour consumed from the grid, more than 83 grams of carbon dioxide are emitted into the atmosphere. Solar energy does not generate greenhouse gases and reduces the emission of CO2 into the air.
“The university used to spend about US $20,000 a month on electricity," Martins de Moraes says. “But with solar energy panels and our energy-efficiency plan, we estimated that we could reduce that amount by 30 percent."
The solar panels also help address a problem Brazil has faced: big losses on transmission lines. The losses have been greater than the power generated by the country's largest hydroelectric plant.
The solar energy is fed to the campus's electricity grid through an on-grid sine wave inverter, which converts DC to AC.
The team plans to install eight more solar panels. With 26 photovoltaic panels, the system could generate 1.45 megawatt hours per month, Martins de Moraes estimates.
The solar energy center has been operating for 1,000 hours and has been able to generate 1 MWh of electricity. That's not enough to power the entire campus, but it reduces conventional energy consumption.
Martins de Moraes performs maintenance by replacing a bulb on a street lamp used to illuminate the campus.Photo: Ponto Illuminado Team
The streetlights that illuminate the campus at night were modernized. They not only are more energy efficient now, but the revamped lights also make the campus safer by providing a greater source of lighting.
“I surveyed the campus to see where most of the energy was being expended and found the streetlamps were the biggest culprit," Martins de Moraes says. The old streetlights, which used 250-watt sodium-vapor bulbs, were responsible for about 42 percent of the university's monthly electric bills, he says.
Sodium-vapor bulbs need to be replaced about every two years, and the cost to replace aging or expired components such as reactors, capacitors, and ignitors is expensive. Another concern was the small amount of mercury the bulbs contain—which presents a disposal problem because they can cause health problems if they break. On top of that, because of their low color rendering index, the bulbs made it difficult for students to see at night.
Martins de Moraes and his team replaced 154 lamps with LED bulbs, which offer a longer life span, better light distribution, and lower maintenance costs. The LEDs also draw less power than traditional lighting.
As a result of the solar energy center and the energy-efficiency plan, the university has been able to save more than $50,000 thus far while reducing the amount of CO2 released into the atmosphere.
The photovoltaic energy generation system used to reduce conventional energy consumption.Photo: Ponto Illuminado Team
Another issue the team tackled was waste disposal. Recyclable materials including glass and paper were being comingled. When waste is not recycled properly, more of it ends up in landfills.
The FEG-Sustentável project worked with the university's campus services and civil engineering departments to build the recycling center. It has separate areas for paper, glass, and plastics.
In addition, the team set up a drop-off area for outdated printers, cellphones, and computers. “These donated electronics can be picked up by underprivileged families to sell—which gives them an additional source of income," Martins de Moraes says.
He is organizing awareness campaigns and classes to teach students and families how to recycle and ways to keep the campus and neighborhood clean.
“I show them how to properly sort trash," he says, “and explain how disposing of it correctly can have a positive impact on the environment and the college itself."
Conserving water is another goal the team has addressed. In partnership with the university's civil engineering academic center, FEG-Sustentável developed a prototype reservoir that can collect 4,000 liters of rainwater. The team plans to use the water to irrigate the university's garden and clean the campus grounds. Ultimately, Martins de Moraes would like rainwater to be the school's main drinking-water source, but first it has to pass Brazil's potable-water regulations.
The team has decreased water consumption by installing automatic-shutoff taps in bathrooms and lubricating water-fountain push buttons so they are less likely to get stuck in the open position. And there are plans to replace the campus water fountains with ones that feature efficient cooling technology.
Martins de Moraes is spreading the word about sustainability.
“I have visited five other local universities to share the work we're doing," he says. “My goal is to help implement the FEG-Sustentável project at other schools throughout the world."
FEG-Sustentável has met 12 of the 17 U.N. Sustainable Development Goals, and it was ranked among the top three projects in the area at an IEEE student branch meeting in Brazil.
Martins de Moraes was invited to give a presentation at the IEEE Global Humanitarian Conference held in October in Seattle. The conference recognized FEG-Sustentável as one of the best IEEE student-led humanitarian projects in the world.
This article appears in the March 2020 print issue as “Thiago Matheus Martins de Moraes Is Making His University More Sustainable."