“Where I first kind of noticed that was In tenth grade biology and we did a yeast culture. I remember distinctly. A little petri dish and you put these little yeast cells in there and then you looked at ‘em through a microscope and you counted them in a little grid system and I learned how to do that and then you let them sit for a while and we just charted the growth of the population and it was pretty cool….
It started going up and then it really started going up and then it kind of flattened off and then it dropped off and that’s when I started thinking about, well if you consume all the food and you pollute the environment that you live in it’s unsustainable.” ~ David Panich, chairman, American Solar Energy Society.
Passive Solar and the Wisdom of Yeast
My guest today is David Panich, chairman of the board of the American Solar Energy Society.
David is an architect who has worked with passive solar building design and energy efficiency since the 1970s. Now he’s the chairman of the board of the American Solar Energy Society. Here is a transcript of our interview.
DP: My name is David Panich. I’m an architect. I worked for a variety of architectural firms around the country, upstate New York, Oregon, Ohio, and then in 1981 I formed my own firm that I ran until 2009. And then I moved away from Ohio and kind of semi-retired and I became way more involved in ASES when I left my practice and somehow ended up being the chairman of the board of ASES this last year and a half and for the remainder of this year.
DB: So you’ve had a lot of different jobs over the years with ASES. Can you talk about a couple of those?
DP: Yeah, I’ve been chair of the sustainability division. ASES has 9 divisions and I’ve been chair of two of them. One is sustainability. The other is solar buildings. And after a year or two of solar buildings I was nominated for a board position representing the division and in ASES we have representatives of chapters and divisions and then the general membership on the board and after a couple of years on the board as a representative of the buildings divisions I became the chair. So that’s kind of the genesis of how I got here.
DB: A lot of people when they think of solar they think of blue photovoltaic panels on a roof. ASES has a long history of reaching across all different types of solar and even other forms of renewable energy I think.
DP: That’s true and the forms are all represented in our technical divisions. We’ve got nine divisions and it ranges from clean water energy to solar resource assessment to sustainability which is kind of a catchall division. We have a solar electric, we have solar thermal, we have concentrating solar power. So most of the technologies that one would consider to be a solar technology. Wind actually is a division also because it’s uneven heating of the earth that causes the wind. And pretty much all of those things are a solar technology and in fact you know when you think about it coal is kind of one too since those were plants that decompose but that’s kind of a much longer story. But yeah we have the divisions and those are the areas. And one tough one is how do we fit efficiency in here because really energy efficiency is as important as generating energy. The watt you don’t use is just as valuable as those you create. So we also have an emphasis, I believe in our mission statement, actually about efficiency also.
DB: What is the mission of the technical divisions or how do they benefit the move toward clean energy?
DP: ASES is a fairly all-encompassing organization. The divisions give people who have a specialty interest a place to land I think, some identity, and hopefully the ability to communicate with their peers. The other function of the divisions really is this conference. We have a call for papers that goes out. And in that call for papers people respond and we generally try to steer the conference toward a current topic of interest to the general consuming group, whatever that would be, of the conference. And when we get our papers in, like this year we had 230 approximate papers or abstracts come in, we sort those up and the divisions actually represent the technical people who view the content and so is this good research, is this study representative of the state of the art and things like that. And when it’s all said and done we will have weeded about half the papers out and that’s the job of our technical divisions and pretty much all of our divisions participate every year in the technical review committee.
DB: So at the end of the conference you’ve compiled a whole new batch of literature that’s there to help people that are trying to stay up front.
DP: Right and you know that’s one of our current projects that we’re trying to find some funding for right now. We have 61 years of ASES archives that were in grave peril of disappearing a couple of years ago when a flood happened in Boulder and they got moved out of a storage area into our Executive Director’s, then Seth Masia’s office, or his garage actually, and that kind of reminded us that we had all this pretty valuable information and really weren’t doing anything with it so part of our relationship with Penn State is that we’ve shipped three copies of pretty much everything we have over 61 years here to Penn State and if we can get some funding to pay for the labor we’re actually going to have them curate and catalog that so that it will be available online for free, searchable by any number of tags. And the hope is that as people are doing research in solar they’ll have access to this and be able to cite the good work that’s gone on in the past and also maybe have a little fact check on what they’re doing and is this really new work or really an extension of what’s been done in the past. Because I see a lot of papers come in that are pretty close to papers that I’ve seen at other conferences. So grad students I think are all very thorough but sometimes if you don’t know the information’s out there, it’s hard to find and we’ve not done a great job of putting our archives out and we feel that’s a real important part of who we are and it’s also a value that we can provide to society and our membership, is giving them easy access to all of the archives.
DB: Over the 61 years that ASES has been around the solar industry and renewable energy in general have evolved an incredible amount, just leaps and bounds. And I’m sure that ASES has fought hard to kind of push that along. What do you think about the progress we’ve made and what we’ve got left to do?
DP: Well I think if you talk about anybody who has been in the solar industry for a while, and when I say awhile I mean back into the 70s. I think the original ASES and ISES (International Solar Energy Society) were mostly a group of researchers who were doing work on solar and it was all pretty academic. There wasn’t a lot of commerce going on in the early days of solar. The oil crisis in 73’ was the first thing that opened the floodgate that this can actually have a practical application because the price of the fossil fuel resource went up. So there was a pretty big flurry of activity in the mid 70s, and that’s when I got involved. I went to the first national passive conference, being an architect. It was in Albuquerque in 76’ and I always think of it as the Woodstock of solar because there were things going on and people doing projects I’d never heard of. Things that certainly weren’t covered in the popular press that was covering the world of architecture. At the time I was doing research into water-based flat plate solar collectors and when I realized I could just design a building that collected and stored and distributed heat, I really didn’t need all these things on the roof, or as many of them or to rely on them in a different way maybe, It was really eye opening for me and that’s what got me involved. After that conference I kind of became addicted to every year coming and finding out what people were doing and then trying to emulate that in my practice. So that started things off for me and that all worked really great until I opened my business and quit working for someone else in 1981. And the administration in Washington changed and many of the incentives that were in place went away. All of a sudden the economic model fell apart and solar flat-lined really for almost two decades in my opinion. I attended a couple of solar conferences in the late 90s. I attended the first green building conference and I don’t even remember the year, it was either 97’ or 98’ and that was the second renaissance in renewable and sustainable energy and that was the green building movement. It was very much like the first passive conference. It was a government-funded, ERDA-funded
’76 conference in Albuquerque and NIST, National Institute of Science and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland sponsored the first Green Building Conference and it was a different experience from what I had in the solar world. These people were all in suits. They weren’t in blue jeans and flannel.
DB: Tell me some of your favorite projects as an architect, passive solar or buildings where you used PV?
DP: I have two projects that I think were the ones I enjoyed doing the most. One of them was in 1984. I did an off the grid house in California. We cheated a little bit. We had a gas refrigerator so we had a little propane tank to run that but we put PV on it. I haven’t seen the house in a few years but the last time that I talked to the owner, which was probably four or five years ago, he said that all of his original PV panels were still functioning, which I think is really good considering the technology of 1984 versus the technology of 2015 in terms of manufacturing PV. So that was a cool project. It was very small. It fit with my philosophy of design, which is that a house should grow with the seasons. You kind of hole up in the winter and make it smaller and in the summer time you open it up. I believe it was about 750 square feet but it would sleep six people and it had living, dining, kitchen, a wood stove and a sun space and exterior wood storage under the stair. It was very compact and very neat and I really enjoyed that project. And it’s funny because that set of plans knocked around my office for years and we used those plans as a basis for a couple of other projects. When people wanted a retirement house that was small and easy to heat and all that. So that was pretty cool. And then I did a series of projects in the late seventies that involved trombe walls and I was really enamored with the concept because it was so simple.
DB: Trombe is spelled T-R-O-M-B-E. I was never really sure how to pronounce that. A Trombe wall is an interior wall that is exposed to the sun from a south facing window. It is usually dark in color and made from stone or something that can absorb a lot of heat. It might even be a big water tank. It heats up during the day when the low winter sun comes in the window and strikes it. Then at night it releases that heat into the house.
DP: There was a house in Princeton, New Jersey that I toured in 1978, designed by a guy, I’m not even sure he went to Princeton but he was teaching there and he did this very good rendition of a trombe wall and I was really taken with that and tried to incorporate that into a few of my projects. I did my own house. I did a lodge building that had dorms in it that we did trombe walls in. And I did a couple of different versions of trombe walls where they were traditional and then kind of an isolated gain where the trombe wall was in a sun space but it was uninsulated into the living space so heat could leak through it. Those were cool projects and I think a lot of people these days just insulate the daylights out of their house and then put some PV on and that’s a good solution but the elegance of a trombe wall I was always enamored with and I thought those were cool. Those were fun.
DB: That sounds good. I would like to have a trombe wall in my house actually. I would like to have some insulation too. Alright one last question. Do you remember a time when you were a kid or maybe when you were in college when you first got really interested in energy and solar.
DP: There’s a third rail issue in the sustainability movement and that is you don’t ever seem to be able to talk about population. Part of the problem is you know we’re reproducing at a rate where it’s unsustainable and really we can make all of the energy in the world but we’re gonna run out of places to live. And I don’t want to see the entire planet paved. Where I kind of first noticed that was in tenth grade biology and we did a yeast culture. I remember distinctly. A little petri dish and you put these little yeast cells in there and then you looked at ‘em through a microscope and you counted them in a little grid system and I learned how to do that and then you let them sit for a while and we just charted the growth of the population and it was pretty cool. It started going up and then it really started going up and then it kind of flattened off and then it dropped off and that’s when I started thinking about, well if you consume all the food and you pollute the environment that you live in it’s unsustainable.
And at that point that’s when I all of a sudden started paying attention to, and probably not actually that day, but I remember thinking about it and thinking well this is an interesting thing if you apply this to humans. And as I went through the rest of my education and went to college. I graduated from college in 1971 and went through the whole anti-war, environmental thing and became kind of a social activist.
DB: Were you a hippie Dave?
DP: I absolutely was a hippie. You know. I wasn’t a leader. I was a follower, I’ll admit that but I did believe in a lot of those things and I think that’s what really kind of set me up for the whole solar thing when I finally discovered it and I was out of work and I had moved from Oregon to Ohio and I was looking for a job. Actually I was trying to see if I could get unemployment for a while and take a vacation. But they told me at the unemployment office I had to get two job interviews every two weeks I think and the first place I walked into was this engineering firm called SunPower, which I could never quite figure out how this other company has that name. And they were doing research on stirling engines, a free piston stirling engine. And the guy who ran the place hired me, even though I was an architect, because he was an engineer, in spite of being an architect. He said he had this thing he wanted me to work on and he was interested in solar thermal and he wanted to come up with a better mousetrap so he set me up in a lab and I was studying inefficiencies and how one designs a flat plate solar collector. And I bought a bunch. I raced them against things I would design and build and try to find out how one maximizes the efficiency in a flat plate solar collector. So I was kind of in the solar industry before I discovered the passive part of it. And I was an architect and when I came back from that conference I was really stoked and I said to him, “Wow, you won’t believe what I just saw.” And he and I went together and applied for a grant to build a test facility, sort of a passive test building. He needed a place for his mother-in-law, who lived in Maine, to stay when she came to southern Ohio. And so we did an all-weather, plywood, subterranean, passive-solar, rock storage, mother-in-law house for her. And I remember the first January after it was completed I went out to see how it was doing and it was about a 10 degree high that day and I walked in the mother-in-law house and it was 80 degrees in the living room but it worked.
For the rest of the interview please listen to the audio clip by clicking the player at the top of this podcast. Please subscribe to the show in iTunes or Stitcher and if you like it please give the show a review. That will help other people find it. I would love to get your feedback too. Please email david at cleanpowerplanet.com.