Engineering Graduate Students Inspect Lowell’s Solar-powered Parking Kiosks

Students inspect a solar panel on a parking kiosk on Jackson Street Image by Ed Brennen
Uzair Aijaz, an energy engineering graduate student from Pakistan, takes notes as Avinash Radhakrishnan, a mechanical engineering graduate student from India, inspects the solar panel atop a parking kiosk on Jackson Street in Lowell.

By Ed Brennen

After some hunting, you find a metered parking space in downtown Lowell. But when you go to drop a few quarters in the nearest payment kiosk, the machine doesn’t work. Should you find another kiosk? Should you leave a note on your dashboard and hope you don’t get a ticket? 

It can be a familiar dilemma for anyone who uses Lowell’s solar-powered parking kiosks, which were installed in 176 locations throughout the city in 2012 but have proven less than reliable in recent years.

To help city officials determine how much life is left in the kiosks before they need to be replaced, 10 graduate students from the Francis College of Engineering and one from the Kennedy College of Sciences are putting their renewable energy know-how to use by inspecting the small solar panels mounted on top of the units and compiling a detailed report for the Lowell Parking Department.

The students are all members of the Solar Energy Association (SEA), a graduate student organization that works to promote renewable energy research and community outreach opportunities. Their project is part of the university’s Service Learning in the College of Engineering (SLICE) program. 

SEA President Madhukar Dadhich says the project is a “win-win” for the students and the city.

Faculty advisor Walter Thomas reaches inside a parking kiosk as students look on Image by Ed Brennen
Asst. Teaching Prof. Walter Thomas, faculty advisor to the Solar Energy Association, talks to students about the inner workings of a parking kiosk during a meeting with Lowell Parking Director Terry Ryan, left.

“This project gives us a chance to analyze the performance of solar panels in real-life conditions and gain practical knowledge,” says Dadhich, a first-year master’s student in the energy engineering program from India. “Simultaneously, our report will help the Parking Department to maximize the power output from the panels and benefit from the testing results.” 

Eight of the students – Musaab Mohammed Ali, Siddhant Bhardwaj, Akarsh Sunil Prasad, Uzair Aijaz, Nayan Meshram, Siddarth Ravi, Srivar Addepalli and Dadhich – are in the energy engineering master’s program. Karthik Sathish Kumar and Avinash Radhakrishnan are studying mechanical engineering, while Aditya Gundawar is pursuing a master’s degree in computer science.

The project kicked off in late February after Lowell Parking Director Terry Ryan contacted Linda Barrington, coordinator of service learning for the Francis College, to see if students would be interested in helping the city.

Barrington, who has coordinated SLICE programs that range from adding solar lighting in Peru to improving playgrounds in Lawrence, passed along the parking kiosk idea to SEA’s faculty advisor Walter Thomas, an assistant teaching professor of mechanical engineering.

“This was a perfect project for them, as it gave the students a chance to practice some skills learned in class in a real-world setting, while also assisting the city of Lowell by identifying potentially damaged or shaded parking kiosks,” says Thomas, director of the renewable energy engineering program.

Graduate student members of SAE pose for a group photo Image by Ed Brennen
Members of the Solar Energy Association, from left, Nayan Meshram, Avinash Radhakrishnan, Akarsh Sunil Prasad, Uzair Aijaz, Siddhant Bhardwaj, Madhukar Dadhich, Aditya Gundawar and Karthik Sathish Kumar take a break from inspecting kiosks on Jackson Street.

After meeting with Ryan at the Lowell Parking Department to go over the scope of the project, the students broke into groups of three and began inspecting kiosks in early March, starting downtown on Merrimack, Market and Middle streets.

“The students’ solar study will absolutely help the city and give us insight to what’s going on with the panels,” Ryan says.

The students noted if the panels were damaged or dirty, if they were shaded by buildings or trees, which direction the panels faced and whether they would perform better if the kiosk was moved to a different location.

The students were able to inspect 61 of the 176 kiosks before the UML campus was shut down because of coronavirus concerns. Madhukar says they hope to complete their inspections as soon as they are able.

“It is important for us as students to get involved in community-related works,” says Madhukar, who sees SEA serving as a “bridge” between the university and city. “We are part of this community and would like to be actively helping in any way, shape or form.”