Recently, Dan had an opportunity to sit down with students from the Energy: Today and Tomorrow class at Frostburg State University in Frostburg, Maryland. The course, taught by Department of Geography lecturer Tracy Edwards, examines many of the questions and challenges of alternative energy discussed in Dan's book Powering The Future: A Scientist's Guide to Energy Independence.
Situated in the mountains of Allegany County near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border where surface coal mining led to the founding of the town and continues widely today, energy alternatives are ever-present in the region around Frostburg State, with huge wind turbines dotting the mountainside, and, just north across the border, hydraulic fracturing ("fracking") operations.
Frostburg State University is in the middle of constructing a “Sustainable Energy Research Facility (SERF)” on campus. It will accommodate the FSU Renewable Energy Center to conduct extended research, education, and community outreach programs on renewable energy applications developed by FSU faculty and their project partners. The facility will also serve as an example of self-sufficient off-grid building, with approximately 6,300 square feet of usable area, supplied by renewable energy sources providing sustainable heating, cooling, and electric power.
As part of the classroom conversation, Dan was asked by one student what is holding back the US government from pushing more aggressively into solar power. Here is Dan's response, which can also be viewed in the video below:[quote style="1"] Actually there is a lot going on. In the American West–-in California and Arizona right now there are some huge plants going in that are going to be up to 400 megawatt solar facilities, and some big corporations, like Florida Light and Power and Southern California Edison, are involved in this and investing in it. So there is some corporate activity, and the federal government is providing some subsidies. It's a trivial amount compared to what we really should do if we really wanted to go strongly in that direction, but it is happening.
The question really is whether America is going to be the manufacturer or whether everything is going to be made in China and we will just be the purchaser of it. I know there is a lot of punditry about how all this is going to stop, or that nobody is going to do it, but I think that the reality is we have to go in that direction, were going to go in that direction--but it is unknown whether our nation is going to invest enough to be competitive with China.
A couple pf guys who wrote a definitive book about the technology of solar cells came to me because they liked my book [Powering the Future] and they said they got out of the energy field because it was so discouraging. [They compared it to] what happened with the LED screens –-- you know, your cell phones all your computers, televisions-–every patent that led to those was developed by RCA. All American inventions. But there was no interest in supporting the manufacturing, so we don’t make any of them, and now all the profit is going to Korea, Taiwan, China, Japan, and South Korea. And they told me "We think the same thing is likely to happen with solar photovoltaics."
So it is a very edgy thing because there is so much dis-enthusiasm in America, particularly with the economic downturn, that this is my main concern—-not that we’re not going to go that way, but that we’re not going to invest and make any money off of it. [/quote] In Powering the Future, Botkin objectively assesses the pros and cons of every leading and emerging source of energy: oil, natural gas, hydroelectric, nuclear, wind, solar, ocean power and biofuels. With his typical Thoreauvian skepticism, he pursues scientific truth untainted by hype, bias, or so-called conventional wisdom.
To learn more about SERF and FSU’s ongoing projects involving renewable energy, visit www.frostburg.edu/renewable.
Our thanks to Tracy Edwards and all the fantastic students who participated.
Additional video segments from Dan's visit to Frostbug State can be be found below.
Part 2: On Dan's Career as a scientist, biologist, and ecologist.
Part 3: Where to focus our energy thinking in the coming decade