UCLA Engineering Student Leads Portable Solar Panel Project to Improve Accessibility

Chen Zhang

Courtesy of Chen Zhang
Chen Zheng (center) with her teammates working on collecting thermal data from a prototype portable solar panel system developed by a startup

Mar 16, 2023

UCLA Samueli Newsroom

Chen Zhang traces her passion for electric power systems to a blackout when she was 6 years old. The power outage cut the TV connection just as she was in the middle of watching her favorite cartoon. Frustrated and puzzled, she spent the rest of the day quizzing her grandmother and parents about where electricity came from and how it supported the different household appliances.

Now a third-year mechanical engineering Ph.D. student at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, Zhang continues to ask tough questions about electricity generation — but she also aims to be part of solutions that focus on sustainable and accessible renewable energy.

“It was really refreshing to finally come to campus in person after one year of studying remotely with a 15-hour time difference,” said Chen Zhang.

Growing up in the eastern Chinese province of Shandong, Zhang was immersed in traditional Confucius teachings that extol the value of education and respect for the elderly. Unlike many students who were told to hit the books and forget about anything else, Zhang said her parents — a doctor and an engineer — encouraged her to keep an open mind, stay curious and explore the fun part of learning.

Seeing her mother working in labs and doing experiments inspired Zhang to pursue her interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics at a very young age. When it came time for college, Zhang decided to major in electrical engineering at nearby Nanjing Agricultural University. After getting her bachelor’s, she pursued an electrical engineering master’s at Shandong University where she studied renewable energy with a particular focus on the output power prediction of solar systems.

The portable structure is being tested atop a UCLA building on different surfaces such as grass. (Courtesy of Chen Zhang)

“I knew that using traditional fossil fuels to generate electricity damages our environment, and that exploring renewable energies brings a bright and promising future for Earth,” Zhang said. “I was motivated to solve problems from the grid’s perspective to ultimately benefit the environment, which was supported by my mother, who is also an environmentalist.” 

In fall 2020, amidst the COVID pandemic, Zhang embarked on her first year of doctoral studies at UCLA doing remote learning. She said she chose the school not only because of its well-known program, but also because it’s based in California — a state leading the charge of global research in decarbonization. In particular, Zhang was drawn to UCLA’s Smart Grid Energy Research Center (SMERC) directed by Rajit Gadh, a professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Impressed by the center’s research in electric vehicle smart charging, Zhang knew her interest in renewable energy solutions would align with the lab’s mission. But it wasn’t until her second year did Zhang was able to visit the lab in person after travel restrictions eased in 2021.

“It was really refreshing to finally come to campus in person after one year of studying remotely with a 15-hour time difference,” Zhang recalled. “The UCLA campus is very beautiful and I love seeing the squirrels running around us every time I walk on campus. It strengthens my motivation to do research on smart grid and renewable energy to protect the environment — not only for humans but also for other creatures on the planet.”

Zhang is currently working on several projects, including the smart-charging strategies that initially caught her attention. She is also working with Gadh to coordinate a multi-campus decarbonization project for the University of California’s Office of the President, where she collaborates with students across the UC system.

“I appreciate that my research field helps with energy efficiency and sustainability because I think it’s very meaningful,” said Zhang.

As part of an initiative funded by the CalTestBed, Zhang is evaluating a prototype portable solar panel system developed by an energy startup to make renewable energy more accessible for those who could not afford to install rooftop solar panels. She leads a team of eight students to collect thermal data from various locations where the prototype is installed with different surfaces such as grass, concrete and asphalt. The goal of the project is to help determine the most suitable environment for the portable system in order to maximize energy generation.

“This project let me know that people from many industries are motivated to develop all kinds of creative products for renewable energies,” Zhang said. “I appreciate that my research field helps with energy efficiency and sustainability because I think it’s very meaningful.”

Zhang is aiming to defend her thesis in late 2024 and said she hopes to continue working in the renewable energy field, whether that be in academia or in industry. 

Dannela Lagrimas contributed to this story.

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