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Tom Melburn has an idea for greening the University of Utah campus — literally and figuratively.

Melburn, a senior majoring in environmental science, proposed covering the south wall of a campus building with photovoltaic panels that replicate the look of ivy vines.

"It's like a billboard," Melburn. "This is going to change people's thinking about solar energy."

His plan is one of 14 that won grants this past academic year from the U.'s Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund, or SCIF, which pays for student proposals for conserving resources on campus, softening the environmental impact of its operations and raising awareness about sustainability.

Students pay a fee of $2.50 per semester into the fund, which last year released $171,000 for projects that include bike fix-it stations, water-bottle-filling equipment, rainwater-harvesting systems, composting facilities, vegetable gardens, a skateboard rack and "Bike to the U. Day" on Sept. 7.

U. students voted to approve the fee two years ago, and so far 37 projects have been funded. Last school year, Utah State University students voted to impose a similar fee on themselves, which takes effect this fall.

One grant this year funded an idea hatched by U. mechanical engineering professor Kent Udell to freeze the ground under a building during the winter. The so-called "Ice Ball" project is down and running under the U.'s Sill Center, where Udell and graduate student Kevin Smith installed 19 pipes 50 feet into the ground that circulate refrigerant liquid to create a ice ball as a way to store "coldness."

A $6,000 SCIF grant paid for the system's temperature and flow sensors.

"Ours is a proprietary technology where we can both inject cold into the ground and extract it," Smith said. "This energy is free. The ground is the perfect medium. It's well insulated. We are just moving energy, instead of a conventional heating ventilation air conditioning system."

The U. already ranks third among U.S. universities in use of renewable of energy, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The agency estimates that the 85 million kilowatt-hours generated by certified renewable energy and solar panel installations covers 31 percent of the university's electricity use.

Melburn's goal is to promote solar-generated power without compromising the aesthetic integrity of the building hosting an array. The 800-square-foot array he envisions on the side of Orson Spencer Hall will generate about 3.25 kilowatts, enough to power a home, he said.

"This will only be a fraction of the energy needed to power the building," Melburn said. "Payback will be 20 to 40 years."

His $30,000 SCIF grant will help pay for 812 flexible leaf-like panels. Each is equipped with a voltaic film and inverter — to enable the system to keep running if one panel should malfunction — mounted on 10-inch plastic sheets of various green hues.

The product is called Solar Ivy, which is manufactured by the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Sustainably Minded Interactive Technology. The U. will be the first campus to install it.

"Solar Ivy strives to make use of space around our built environment that is not being used. It is inspired by the ivy, which grows vertically for efficiency gains," said Samuel Cochran, SMIT co-founder and CEO. "We are able to tune the system to allow each leaf to not shade the next."

The U. ivy array will be mounted on a steel mesh that will be fixed to the wall, arranged in a pattern to mimic actual ivy. Melburn anticipates it will be up by early fall semester, but he has to raise more money.

Melburn's grant is $12,000 short of the $42,000 needed to install the system, so his hat is out to the campus community. As with the bricks fundraisers "sell" for building projects, Melburn hopes people will pay $25 to buy a leaf, which will make them eligible for a drawing to win lift tickets donated by Utah ski areas.

Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund

This University of Utah program is funded by a $2.50-per-semester fee students approved two years ago as a way to generate money for student proposals to lessen the university's ecological footprint and promote resource conservation. The initiative has funded 37 projects to date, including Tom Melburn's plan to cover the south wall of a campus building with "Solar Ivy," photovoltaic panels designed and arranged to simulate the look of ivy. For more information or to donate to the project, visit