U.S. electric consumers spend over $360 billion each year, much of which pays for power generated from fossil fuels which are extracted outside our state. To put it simply, currently there is a trade imbalance when it comes to
electricity, in addition to producing power that is less than environmentally pristine. But the electricity system is experiencing a major transformation; distributed solar, like we see on home rooftops and in solar farms, has provided more than 5 percent of newly added power plant capacity from 2011 through 2015. Some of the credit for that growing trend goes to the University of Central Florida’s (UCF) Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC). The program’s Director since January of 2005, Dr. James M. Fenton, leads a staff of over 100 in the research and development of energy technologies that enhance Florida’s and the nation’s economy and environment.
EW: How did you get into this field?
JF: I tell people it took me 25 years to move from one theme park to another. I grew up in Anaheim and once had a job at Disneyland. My father was a Ph.D. organic chemist who worked R&D in the oil industry, and through his friends and network I was exposed to different industries. I always liked math and working with my hands and gravitated toward chemical engineering. I suppose I was always thinking about alternatives to gasoline as the first oil embargo took place in 1973, when I turned 16. If I asked my parents for the keys to the car they gladly gave them, but I had to wait in line (up to an hour) to fill it up.
When I graduated from college, we thought nuclear energy was, as we jokingly say, ‘going to make electricity too cheap to meter; now we realize it is too expensive to matter.’ Because of that expectation, I started focusing on advancing battery technology to store electricity, though it didn’t turn out. I saw the chemical industry as being truly competitive and innovative; they made things that moved in the commercial market and I enjoyed the academic/research side, spending 20 years as a chemical engineering professor at the University of Connecticut.
“Everyone knows what the price of gas is and where you can get it the cheapest, but we don’t think about electricity that way.”
EW: Explain the case for solar.
JF: Electricity is an interesting commodity, in that everyone uses it, but we don’t really think competitively about its pricing. Everyone knows what the price of gas is and where you can get it the cheapest, but we don’t think about electricity that way.
Also, we decided everyone should have equal access to electricity, which was a nice idea, so we spread the high cost of bringing it to the rural farmhouse versus the dense urban area over to everyone. Essentially, electricity is a governmentally regulated monopoly. Fundamentally, solar is the best way to have economic democracy and economic diversity right on people’s roofs.
The cost of solar 10 years ago was about 10 times what it would cost to produce electricity through a utility, so the only place photovoltaic had a viable use was on space stations.
Now it is almost the same cost. What people don’t understand is that as the cost of energy rises, the value of solar goes up. Our problem is incumbent technology has the political where-with-all to keep their technology in place. Fortunately, the little guys are coming up with disruptive technologies like cellphones, electric vehicles and PVs that are game changers.
Initially they are cost prohibitive, then it takes off. As the saying goes, ‘We didn’t get out of the stone age for lack of stones;’ we found something better. The same will be true of the ‘oil age.’
“Ten years ago no one in their right mind would put photovoltaic on their house, but because the cost of PV is coming down so sharply, soon no one in their right mind won’t have PV on their house.”
EW: What are some ways we can move towards a sustainability culture?
JF: Why when a house is bought isn’t there a calculation on the energy efficiency rate of return, like there is now on a water heater or air conditioner? Homes are sold based on location, size, granite counter tops etc., and banks or realtors have to explain the interest rates, the cost of taxes and insurance, but not the cost of energy use. That is one of the biggest factors on the cost of a house, but it isn’t clearly calculated. At least it hasn’t been in the recent past.
The essence of being energy efficient is to not use energy, and by taking the steps to make my house more efficient I increase its value. Ten years ago no one in their right mind would put PV on their house, but because the cost of PV is coming down so sharply, soon no one in their right mind won’t have PV on their house.
EW: Why is the cost coming down so sharply?
JF: Most of it is economy of scale. We make one and the cost of the prototype is exorbitant; we make a million and the cost crashes, like the first mainframe computers, versus today’s PCs. Each year the numbers we manufacture go up geometrically and the price comes down by 20 percent every time we increase production by a factor of 10.
EW: Has the technology improved the efficiency of PV?
JF: Yes, but you have to be careful what you pay for. We compare it to the cost coming out of the wall. In Connecticut and New Jersey, PV is cheaper; in Florida it isn’t. It is rather complicated. By the year 2020 the price of an electric vehicle (EV) will be competitive with gas and the price of PV on your roof will go down, so your overall cost for energy can come way down.
Right now you can buy a net-zero house, and if during the day your PV makes more electricity than you need, rather than storing it in a battery, you sell it to the power company, and at night when you can’t make electricity, you buy it back.
That is “net-metering.” Basically, your meter is running backwards and as long as you aren’t on the plus side, you are selling back more than you are consuming. That is allowed in Florida.
EW: But will there always be a need for a grid which transports and supplies electrical power?
JF: Yes, we need the grid. Historically we made large centralized power generation plants – in fact, the biggest are the cleanest, hydroelectric. Now we are moving to distributed energy generation, wind turbines here and solar farms there, panels on rooftops or garages. Grids enable us to connect and deliver these innovative means of power production anywhere. Also, if one source of power is knocked out, by say a hurricane, we can borrow from another source and move it around.
EW: Among other things, you train energy inspectors here, and you conduct research on energy efficiency of a host of products. What is one of the most practical innovations your researchers have come up with?
JF: Versa Drives, an India-based manufacturer of electric motors, drives and appliances, has licensed an amazing fan blade design developed here under the direction of Danny Parker, principal research scientist at FSEC. The fan blade design is based on aviation propeller innovations; it is an aerodynamic design that produces maximum performance and energy efficiency.