Good Life

Focus on Research: Solar ecology explores the challenges in solar energy

Jason Grottini of Envinity moves a solar panel into place on the roof of the State College Friends Meeting in State College on Sept. 9.
Jason Grottini of Envinity moves a solar panel into place on the roof of the State College Friends Meeting in State College on Sept. 9. CDT Photo

Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects and topics being explored at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

Get ready, we are embarking on yet another wave of energy exploration, one that will change the way that we think about energy, water and food: solar energy.

You may think that solar energy is just about those black or blue panels on rooftops — which use solar photovoltaics, a technology to generate electricity from light — and you may even mistakenly think that there is “not enough” sun to get something useful from solar here in central Pennsylvania. It is time to think again — about the diverse goods and services that we all get from the sun, and the patterns that underlie a rich tradition of discovery and design.

Have a house? You use solar energy. Eat food? You use solar energy for that, too. Solar energy is also necessary to make Vitamin D. And the effect of a sunny day keeping your skin warm on a cool fall day is thanks to solar energy again.

The rise of solar

The story of solar energy is the story of society, affecting architecture and agriculture for millennia — and, in recent decades, solar technologies such as solar photovoltaics. The solar energy field has seen cycles of emergence and adoption for science, technology and entrepreneurship (the 1780s, the 1860s, 1890s, the 1950s and 1970s), followed by decades of dispersion and knowledge lost.

Most recently there was a distinct 20-year gap in solar jobs and hence a gap in experienced solar energy scientists, engineers and installers in the U.S., associated with an absence of funding and incentives from 1985-2005. And yet now the global solar industry is growing rapidly, led by the bellwether of solar photovoltaics and the international pressure to find low carbon energy solutions.

The solar electric industry in the U.S. alone has doubled in scale seven times in the past decade, and solar technologies have the benefit of widespread social acceptance. The Solar Energy Industries Association notes that the installed cost of photovoltaics has dropped by more than 73 percent since the implementation of the Federal Investment Tax Credit of 2006.

The Solar Foundation is an organization aggregating data and developing policy reports on the impact of solar photovoltaics in the U.S. As of 2014, TSF has found that there are 2,800 solar jobs in Pennsylvania, with 174,000 jobs in solar nationwide.

TSF notes that nationally, nearly 3,800 school buildings have solar installations, such that almost 3 million U.S. students attend K-12 schools with solar integrated into the environment. Our own schools in the State College and Bald Eagle area school districts have photovoltaic arrays and technology educational projects with solar. There is a broad framework that weaves solar energy into each of our lives, but it may take the trumpeting of photovoltaics for us to look around and see that solar has been with us all along.

Solar ecology

The future of solar energy’s rapid expansion ties directly to our ability to rapidly build human capacity and lower barriers to entry at all levels of education. Solar energy represents systems-based research and education. As a nation, we are rebuilding our solar knowledge and local vernacular for solar design from a low capacity (as of 2005).

Penn State is a national and international leader in solar energy research and education that developed its solar presence much earlier than other institutions through two Solar Decathlons (a student/faculty enterprise sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, to compete nationally in the design, building and operation of a solar-powered residential house) and multiple education and outreach programs. Through this leadership, we now seek to redefine the grand challenges in solar energy for the next 20 years.

This next era of solar will be much more diverse than photovoltaics alone, leading to new services that we have yet to imagine, much like we could not quite imagine the diverse services of social networks, weather, banking and email from a “phone” back in 1999. There is a big systems field emerging for solar within the context of the environment, society and technology, connecting solar science with design, business, art, lifestyle, health and well-being. We are calling that encompassing systems field solar ecology.

The nexus of energy-water-food systems presents an ecology, a study of the “home.” When we explore the patterns of interactions among the sun’s light and all of the goods and activities derived from sunlight, we are exploring solar ecology.

Solar energy has influence on water, land use, ecosystems services, food systems and social systems. Solar ecology is an interactive systems framework within the context of the environment, society and technology — affecting water and food systems coupled to local seasonal weather regimes. Our interdisciplinary team has been engaging nearly 50 Penn State faculty members to explore and develop a programmatic approach to solar ecology. Collaborators with the Penn State Solar Ecology Team include researchers in the fields of economics, energy engineering, geography, law, meteorology and rural sociology.

What makes solar energy so compelling and so fun for many of us?

In our work as solar researchers and educators, we convey that all solar is local. There is always a local and a regional context to solar that makes each aspect of exploration and design interesting, and connected with our own sense of place.

Much like our local farming concept, solar farming is emerging in novel ways in communities across the very diverse political and environmental constraints of the U.S. We have community solar developing for farming areas in Iowa, urban communities in New Jersey and food cooperatives in Michigan. We also see solid support in states with strong desires for energy independence and choice of energy, such as in Georgia, Florida and Texas. And yes, in states that are known for hotter weather, there is also demand for solar.

Solar capacity will grow as we come together to align around this exploration of new opportunities within the contexts of the solar ecology framework. As agents of change within our community, our schools, and our homes, we each work to enable this transition in the near future.

Jeffrey R. S. Brownson is an associate professor of energy and mineral engineering at Penn State.


What: Solar Ecology: Exploring the Grand Challenges in Solar Energy

When: 9:45 a.m.-3 p.m. Dec. 4; participants must register by 3 p.m. on Dec. 2

Where: Earth and Mineral Sciences Energy Institute, University Park

Info: solarchallenge