Dr. Jeffrey Brownson of the Pennsylvania State University
My guest this week is Dr. Jeffrey Brownson from the Pennsylvania State University. His focus is solar energy research and education. I spoke to him at the American Solar Energy Society conference, which was hosted by Penn State. Dr. Brownson is also on the board of the society, where he represents the interests of students and faculty. He also directed Penn State’s 2009 Solar Decathlon project. If you’ve never heard of the solar decathlon I think you will be amazed at what goes into it.
JB: My name is Jeffrey Brownson. I am associate professor of energy and mineral engineering at Penn State University. I work primarily on solar energy research and education. I am also the faculty lead for the solar option in the online master of professional studies program for renewable energy and sustainability systems.
DB: That’s a lot. Quite a few hats there. Is your background in electrical engineering or?
JB: I’m actually a scientist by training. I am both a materials scientist and a field systems scientist. I have experience in geosciences, environmental chemistry, materials science and I have grown into the solar field over the last two decades essentially to become a solar researcher in materials and systems. That was actually kind of enacted by the solar decathlon of 2009, where I became the faculty director as I arrived at Penn State and became really caught up in solar as a whole systems approach.
DB: That’s a really exciting project. Can you tell us a little bit about how the decathlon works?
JB: The solar decathlon is targeted at students, faculty and peer partners through institutions and companies, gathering together and forming an enterprise to design, build and operate a small but completely solar powered home. And that home is then demonstrated and is part of a competition of ten different evaluations over the period of a week. In our time it was in Washington D.C. on the national mall and has since become a project in China and Europe and now will be rolling out in California.
DB: So they hold it every year?
JB: It happens every two years, which is actually advantageous because it’s a huge enterprise so even in two years you’re cutting it really tight. But what it does is it builds human capacity in understanding solar power, in understanding energy efficient building design and really in enabling a younger generation of emerging professionals to come forward and become leaders for the next generation of renewable energy, sustainability and energy efficient buildings.
DB: So there are so many different technologies that go into a house like that. I can’t imagine all of the systems you have to put together.
JB: Right and I think that was an exciting part of the solar decathlon. It really transforms what students and faculty might have originally thought of as a project into a whole collection of projects and really what I like to think of as an entire enterprise, so you’re bringing together people from many different disciplines. You have to make sure that you have architecture faculty and students as well as engineering faculty and students, communications people, we had people who were in industrial engineering just helping us to understand how our teams coordinated together so we got the highest efficiency for project development out of the event. And those were just naturally occurring features of this. And I think it really came about because we knew we were in a competition, we knew we were trying to succeed but we also didn’t know what we were doing. So, we kind of put anything together all at once and hoped for the best and that leaves a lot of room for creativity and new innovation.
DB: Well I didn’t realize that that competition moved every two years.
JB: It’s now moving. There was a period where it was on the national mall for at least four or five competitions and then it started going mobile and I think it actually serves as an advantage to people who are in institutions far away. Transporting an entire house from California to Washington D.C. has a high risk factor and cost.
DB: The house is assembled at the competing university. Is there any disassembly before they ship it?
JB: That’s entirely up to the institution. We used a modular builder. Pennsylvania has a really strong modular building industry and we embraced that and we had a single unit that we then finished on the mall in Washington. But many other people brought pieces of buildings to put together and you have a limited time to assemble it so you have to have a strategy.
DB: How did your team do?
JB: Our team did fairly well. In 2009 we did not place in the top three but we had a strong placing in third place for lighting design, for several aspects of the 10 competitions. We did quite well. It was ultimately decided very early in our competition that we were not trying to win, that we were actually trying to grow the people that were on the team to become leaders and so there were some rules, some constraints in the project that were artificial enough that did not have a higher value for our larger mission of raising these students into being professionals so we shifted our focus more toward our core mission of what we were trying to do. And as a consequence we sacrificed our leadership positions but I feel we grew many more student leaders who are now leaders within their own industry, pursuing graduate degrees and very successful in their own right.
DB: Great and that’s more important in the long run really.
JB: I think so , yes.
DB: Well, we’re here at Penn State for the American Solar Energy Society conference this week so that’s probably pretty exciting for you to be the host university.
JB: Yeah, this is a fantastic culmination of several years-worth of work. Penn State applied and was successful in developing an affiliation with the American Solar Energy Society. The first academic affiliation that ASES has had in quite some time. And it was really to develop three key points. The first was to hold a conference at Penn State and build awareness of solar energy within the state of Pennsylvania from that. And the second was to build our emerging professionals. So ASES now has an emerging professionals emphasis where we want to grow and encourage development of the next generation of solar and sustainability professionals. This includes people who are transitioning in their careers as well, not just coming out of their undergraduate degrees. And the third thing is that Penn State in the special collections library has taken on the 60 year archive of ASES’ literary collection and will be keeping that in trust and curating that in perpetuity as a trust for everyone. And so the goal will be to also raise funds for the digitization of those resources to make them open and available to everyone.
DB: That’s fantastic. There’s a lot of history there in the industry. It seems like once upon a time when you look at older documents people were trying a little bit of just any crazy thing they could think of.
JB: Yes, but it’s also interesting to know that the history of solar science, solar building science that goes back many, many decades. And as ASES is the oldest solar institution in the nation, to be able to connect back to what were actually academic roots where it was essentially a bunch of physicists who wanted to grow and promote solar energy in a time when they saw great potential for it. So there’s actually many decades of very focused and well-designed research that’s not necessarily ad hoc in nature but in fact was very purposeful and was lost as a generation of knowledge between about 1985 and 2005. Just being able to reintegrate that information into the solar society is going to be a powerful change so we’re not reinventing the wheel.
DB: Do you think that’s more applicable to photovoltaics or passive solar?
JB: I think there’s huge strengths in passive solar and solar thermal applications. There was a lot of research that stemmed from the University of Minnesota, the University of Wisconsin, MIT. There were just these solar strongholds and they were all generally in the north, that people don’t know about but for which we have an incredible resource of information. Photovoltaics research has been growing continuously, however photovoltaics is essentially a commodity. It’s a known technology. It’s something that’s reduced in cost and increased in efficiency naturally as an industrial process. The more interesting parts of photovoltaics are thinking about the services that might come out of photovoltaics themselves. So how do we develop community solar? How do we think about ways of financing solar projects? Those have become much more interesting research topics tied to policy and economics than the actual technology of photovoltaics themselves.
DB: So there’s a pretty large untapped potential with energy efficiency and passive solar since our homes just haven’t changed that much in the last couple hundred years. Our insulation is typically poor. What do you think it’s going to take for us to really start taking those technologies on board in a massive way?
JB: I think that a lot of that is changing and has been changing. It’s just been relatively quietly shifting in both residential and commercial building strategies. We have seen more and more movement on quantification of energy efficiency in both residential and commercial buildings that is much more akin to what we’ve seen in the past in Germany and many European countries that are focused on energy efficiency. We’re starting to see, within the U.S., an adoption of that, of quantifying it and then giving it a value in terms of resale. You’re looking at home performance energetically as part of the financial advantage of a given building. And that I think is growing and shaping right now. Penn State was actually fortunate enough to be part of the Department of Energy, energy efficient buildings hub at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, where we were really pushing energy efficiency and streamlined processing of evaluation commercial buildings and making them more efficient as a main target. Just that transition and translation from the last five to six years is pretty major and I would not be surprised at all with the advent of LEED certification of buildings, with other energy efficient strategies, that we will find a much stronger job cohort for people that are looking at energy efficiency in buildings and maintaining them and just generally a shift to building design that is more energy efficient because we can actually monetize that as a higher value in the business systems themselves. So I think things are changing and things are shifting that way. The value in ASES is that ASES is the one institution that brings together both photovoltaic and passive solar design, energy efficient building design together in one forum and tying those together makes you realize that they’re both parts of the same coin, that ultimately reductions in energy demand and increases in local energy production are just powerful when they’re tied together.
DB: I know we need to get back so I’ll just ask you… two more questions. You mentioned that Pennsylvania is an energy state. Can you elaborate on that a little bit?
JB: Pennsylvania, as a very old state, has a very long tradition of being rich in different energy resources and then seeing industry capitalize on those resources. So we’ve gone through long periods of first anthracite coals and then lower energy coals followed by some of the first oil booms that took place within Pennsylvania, followed by nuclear energy development that took place in Pennsylvania then followed by the natural gas boom that’s in Pennsylvania and parallel to that although people don’t realize it has also been a boom in wind development, a boom in actually taking advantage of methane collection within farms for electricity and now a growth of solar energy and energy efficient buildings. All of these things together, to me, make Pennsylvania just an energy state. Pennsylvania is also one of the only states, in association with California, that has gone through a very robust energy restructuring in terms of its electricity markets which makes it very different from a lot of different states. And all of that to me gives me hope for developing opportunities in Pennsylvania that we’re looking for energy solutions and we recognize that energy is always in transition in Pennsylvania so there’s not necessarily as much of a true lock on any one energy supply method. I think there’s actually a strong value in diversity that Pennsylvanians can respond to and that’s an opportunity for solar to grow into.
DB: What do you think is the awareness level in Pennsylvania for solar potential here? Would you say the average person in Pennsylvania thinks of solar as an option?
JB: I would say that that is growing, that Pennsylvania had a long tradition of wanting to believe in solar energy but essentially coming to an understanding that the reason solar was not being developed was probably because it was cloudy. The reality is that every state around us is cloudy in some way or other. We’re actually very rich in solar resource but there was some sort of rationalization that needed to come forward, why solar wasn’t developing as rapidly as every other energy industry in this state. That is a work in progress in terms of outreach, in terms of community engagement that I do in my research and that my peers have done. And that ground is shifting and it’s shifting very rapidly because there really is no yuck factor for solar inside of Pennsylvania. If it is an opportunity and it seems to be both fun and financially rewarding then Pennsylvanians are into it and excited to adopt it. So the more that people find out that there is enough sunshine in Pennsylvania, in New York, in Maryland, in Ohio, in all of our surrounding areas, in Kentucky that we would ultimately be able to grow solar in Pennsylvania and people are ready to adopt it. So I think it’s more a matter of perception and we’re changing that through just continuous community education and repetition.
DB: Are you under attack at all on the political side?
JB: Well I think there’s always going to be in any one of these states where traditional energies have been established, there’s always going to be a force that wants to conserve that tradition. And that’s no different here, however, because of say the natural gas boom that tradition has been disrupted by natural gas. And that disruption and shift by a totally different energy source is actually putting people off balance enough to start looking at other opportunities. So inside of Pennsylvania we do have a mixture of different government commitments. Our Governor right now is Democratic and has Democratic appointees. Our main constituency within the general representation is strongly Republican but again it’s more about building awareness, showing that there are value propositions that are both, in terms of energy resilience, in terms of energy independence, as well as in terms of addressing environmental concerns or just providing new ways of developing energy that people feel connected to and find compelling. I think that there’s a lot of potential here in Pennsylvania for change.
DB: Okay. And this is the very last question. How did you get interested in solar energy and renewable energy in general?
JB: I was initially, like way back as an undergraduate, actually a geologist.
DB: Hey, I was too.
JB: There we are. And I was fascinated by being out in the field and doing field research, just the act of doing science in a big systems environment was extremely appealing to me. I shifted into materials science during my Ph.D. and during that time I was still in a materials program within an environmental context. I ended up studying materials for self-cleaning glass, light interactions with materials on glass that tied me closer and closer to solar as photovoltaics. I ultimately went and researched in France for a year as a post-doctoral researcher in one of the national labs researching photovoltaics before coming back and developing more research in the states in solar. At that time when I came back, solar was essentially unheard of in the academic framework. It had been so far gone nobody really had that much knowledge so it was an open space to develop into and then really coming into Penn State, becoming a part of the solar decathlon was what brought me back into the field, back into the large systems context and I just really fell in love with it again. So I do my best to develop my research and my educational goals to match with a larger system context, society and the environment coupled together, tied with the sun and it is extremely rewarding and I don’t foresee changing it anytime soon.
DB: Great. That sounds like a lot of fun and I really appreciate you spending the time with me Jeffrey.
JB: Absolutely, thank you very much.