Perspectives on 30 Years: Interview Series
Perspectives on 30 Years of Clean Energy and Sustainability. As we approach The 30th Anniversary Energy Fair this June 21-23, we’re examining how the market, and practices of clean energy and sustainability have changed in the U.S. over the last three decades. We’re conducting interviews with advocates that have stood by MREA and The Energy Fair since the beginning.
- INTERVIEW ONE: Perspectives on Changes in Renewable Energy Technology
- INTERVIEW TWO: Perspectives on Changes to Renewable Energy Policy
- INTERVIEW THREE: Perspectives on Changes to Sustainable and Energy Efficient Construction Practices
- INTERVIEW FOUR: Perspectives on Changes to Sustainable Farm and Garden Practices
- INTERVIEW FIVE: Perspectives on Changes in Clean Transportation Technology
In October 1973, people in the United States learned firsthand how dependent we were on oil produced in the Persian Gulf. A few months after the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries proclaimed an oil embargo on the U.S. (and other countries that supported Israel in the Yom Kippur War), the price of oil quadrupled. This led to price caps, rationing, and a cascading foreign policy effect. By 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait over oil-pricing and production disputes, the US was quick to enter the first Gulf War, including naval bombardment, air forces, and ground troops. This also led to a call for local energy action in Home Power Magazine, the opening of The First Energy Fair, and formation of the Midwest Renewable Energy Association.
Fast forward to today, much has changed: Home Power printed its last magazine this year, solar and wind are the leading source of new electricity generation in the US, the US is set to be a net exporter of oil and gas, and yet the US is still embroiled in conflicts across the Middle East.
Click here to download the full interview series.
INTERVIEW ONE: Perspectives on Changes in Renewable Energy Technology
For some perspective on how renewable energy has changed over the last 30 years, we talked with longtime MREA Member, John Dunlop who has been supporting renewable energy development since our beginnings.
John serves as the Chairperson at SOLAR 2019, National Conference of the American Solar Energy Society. John has a long history of working in the public policy arena, and is skilled in sustainable development, renewable energy, and environmental issues. John is also a Member and supporter of the MREA.
MREA: John, thanks for sitting down with us to provide some perspective on how the U.S. renewable energy market has changed over the last 30 years. To get started, please tell us a bit about yourself and your work in renewable energy.
John: Even before the 1973 oil embargo, I had graduated in physics and mechanical engineering, and my wife and I had devoted two years serving in India in the Peace Corps. While I was there, I observed the dire need for energy and abundance of solar power. I built my first solar water heater and we had the only hot shower in our town! I made the commitment to try to expand the use of solar power for everyone.
After I returned to Minnesota, I was gratified that I was hired to head up the Minnesota Solar Office under the Carter Administration as a part of the Mid-American Solar Energy Center. After the Reagan Administration shut down the program in the early 1980’s, the State of Minnesota continued our program for a total of 15 years. We launched statewide programs in solar water heating (with 5,000 solar water heaters installed), passive solar design residences, the state’s wind resource assessment program, and cost-effective photovoltaic applications for state government operations, even in the 1980’s. Our office participated in the establishment of what has become the Interstate Renewable Energy Council and the Solar Rating and Certification Corporation, both of which I had the honor to chair. Our office helped host the 1983 ASES conference in Minneapolis, and led the 1995 ASES conference, which I chaired. I was then with the American Wind Energy Association as the regional manager and technical programs manager for 20 years. We saw the explosion of wind power across the US during that time, and I participated in the establishment of the Small Wind Certification Corporation. I have been a technical policy consultant since 2014.
MREA: John you sure have had an impressive career! In your time working in renewable energy, what changes have you seen, and what has surprised you the most?
John: Perhaps the most surprising revelation for me has been how hard facts do not influence people to action. We developed a wealth of information about the cost-effectiveness of solar water heating, photovoltaics (in appropriate applications), and wind power over the years, and promoted those facts in various venues, yet still relatively few people adopted those technologies at the time. Fortunately, the current solar and wind industries have built on those meager bases to become the powerhouses for future electricity supply in the nation and across the planet.
MREA: With all of this change, what challenges have we overcome and what challenges remain?
John: Our early programs helped to shake out technologies to produce the most cost-effective and durable wind and solar systems. Technology improvements have led to the solid track records in wind and solar on which policy-makers can confidently base their drive to increase the use of clean energy. The harsh reality, however, is that over the period of my career, we have all failed. I first heard about the “greenhouse effect” back in 1971 in grad school. Understanding the consequences of using carbon fuels has driven many of us to push the transition to clean energy. No matter how we paint it – wind power is the cheapest electricity source available, solar power costs have plummeted hundreds-fold, awareness of the climate crisis is at an all-time high – our efforts have been inadequate. We are still on a course for self-annihilation as a civilization on this planet. We have not succeeded in reducing greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The carbon pollution we have emitted is already causing upheaval to a civil society and is destined to become worse.
MREA: And finally, what makes you most optimistic about the future of renewable energy?
John: In the context of that current assessment, optimism seems naïve. But I truly believe we’re at the “tipping point” of public policy. We have already caused a 1 °C increase in planet temperatures over pre-industrial times. But movements are swelling daily to DRAMATICALLY increase our insistence on no-carbon energy, nation- and world-wide. The recent UN and Trump Administration reports clearly provide a path to avoiding more than another 0.5 °C maximum increase in world-wide temperatures – kicking carbon within a decade! We CAN DO IT! Within even MY lifetime! It will be dramatic. It will not be devastating. It will be challenging. We have the clean energy resources. We need to build the conversion equipment (wind and solar) and the delivery system (high voltage DC) to supply everyone with clean electricity for everything in their homes, their businesses, their transportation systems. It will be a monumental transformation and a huge economic opportunity ramping up immediately.
INTERVIEW TWO: Perspectives on Changes to Renewable Energy Policy
Despite the technological advancements in renewable energy, state policy has determined whether and when markets for clean energy technologies flourish or languish. For some perspective on how policy battles for clean energy have changed over the last 30 years, we talked with Michael Vickerman from RENEW Wisconsin. He has been fighting for supportive policy action since our beginnings.
Michael serves as Policy Director for RENEW Wisconsin. He started back in 1991 to manage an intervention before the Public Service Commission and has worked for the organization ever since. Michael and the RENEW team work on policies and programs that expand renewable energy in Wisconsin.
MREA: Michael, thanks for sitting down with us to provide some perspective on how policy battles for clean energy have changed over the last 30 years. To get started, please tell us a bit about yourself and your work in clean energy policy.
Michael: Since 1991, I have worked for RENEW Wisconsin in various capacities, including as Executive Director for nearly 20 years. Understand that from a staffing perspective, RENEW was a one-man operation in its first 10 years, and that the term “Executive Director” was code for Director of Everything, which included data entry. Renewable energy was not on the map when I started working for RENEW. That said, the only native energy resources in the state, then as today, are renewable in nature: wind, solar, hydro, fiber, and organic wastes. The task before our Board of Directors and myself was to figure out how to put renewables on the map and make it relevant to the 99.99% of Wisconsin residents who were not members of RENEW. What unfolded from that moment forward was a combination of basic education and specific policy proposals to move renewable energy out of the wilderness and integrate it into our daily lives.
MREA: What noteworthy changes have you seen over the last 30 years? What has surprised you the most?
Michael: When thinking about where we are today, I continue to be, pun intended, blown away by the engineering advances in the renewable energy world—especially in solar and wind—since 1991. The first wind farm in the Midwest was built in 1994 in a section of Minnesota called the Buffalo Ridge. When you look at pictures of those ungainly contraptions with their black blades spinning above stubby lattice towers and compare them with today’s turbines, with blades almost as long as the shiny and tall tubular towers projecting into the sky, the differences could not be more stark. The 1994 version is a lab experiment involving a promising prototype, while the 2019 version is—dare I say it—a fully mature power plant.
I am no less astonished by the transformation of solar photovoltaics then I am with wind power. Twenty five years ago, electricity production from photovoltaic cells occurred only in calculators and spacecraft. In those days, there was no point of contact or overlap in the Venn diagram depicting solar PV and electric utilities. Today, solar electricity is generated on houses, commercial buildings, and open land. It has become a desirable alternative to growing corn on your land.
The fact that wind and solar have become the default energy resources for electric utilities is by far the most noteworthy change I’ve seen in my 27+ years with RENEW.
MREA: Are the same groups still fighting on either side of the issue? Have you seen groups change their position in support of clean energy?
Michael: Unlike the situation, say, 10 years ago, renewable energy resources are today fully cost-competitive with conventional energy sources. We know that now, and, significantly, so do electric utilities, which have been the principal targets of our clean energy advocacy since Day One. Ten years ago utilities and clean energy advocates quarreled over the question of whether to increase supplies of renewable energy. Especially in the solar energy arena, the fault line in this conflict has since evolved from the question of “whether” to the question of “in what form.” While utilities are now on board with solar as a bulk energy resource, most remain resistant to the idea of customers generating solar electricity for themselves. We have a few utilities in Wisconsin that regard solar self-generation as an economic threat that needs to be contained if not outright throttled.
MREA: What challenges have we overcome and what challenges remain?
Michael: The journey we have undertaken with renewable energy has covered a great deal of ground. At the outset we had to demonstrate why renewable energy is relevant to the state’s economic and environmental future, and not simply a fringe consideration. This challenge motivated advocates to characterize both the benefits from working renewable resources into Wisconsin’s energy mainstream and the risks of not doing so. It also required much thinking about the policy mix that would deliver opportunities and positive results for both utilities and customers, since the economics weren’t favorable for many years. In the previous decade, Wisconsin’s political leadership did a pretty good job of forging a consensus on clean energy policy, and the fruits of the clean energy legislation adopted in 2006 are readily apparent.
However, much of that momentum has dissipated, a casualty of the 2010 elections and the resulting vacuum in political leadership that set in shortly thereafter. A very different attitude towards clean energy emerged in state government, one grounded in the belief that Wisconsin had more than enough generating capacity to power itself for the foreseeable future, so why add more renewables? Not surprisingly, wind power development slowed to a standstill here, and on that front Wisconsin became the undisputed laggard in the Upper Midwest.
On the customer side of the picture, Focus on Energy’s renewable energy component survived a rocky stretch earlier in the decade and now is in the best shape it’s been since its inception in 2002.
MREA: And finally, what makes you most optimistic about the future of clean energy policy?
Michael: To begin with, public support for wind and solar is at an all-time high. Most citizens now know that these resources today are cost-competitive with fossil fuels and they also appreciate the fact that wind and solar avoid the environmental liabilities associated with coal or natural gas. The citizens of this state now expect their elected officials to take action. To that end, a growing number of cities and counties have set aggressive renewable energy and carbon reduction goals, along with implementation plans to achieve these goals. Parallel to those efforts, electric providers are adopting aggressive carbon reduction goals of their own and have begun in earnest to acquire utility-scale solar and wind, which they say will lower their operating costs. It’s worth noting that this transition is happening without a policy driver at the state level. Though the transition is proceeding in a piecemeal and scattershot manner, it is happening and its effects are noticeable.
Which leads me to my final thought. Yes, we have a very divided state government today, but with the election of Tony Evers as our new governor, we will see positive leadership at the state level again after eight years of lethargy and drift. I am hopeful that his administration will find a way to put the State of Wisconsin back into the forefront of clean energy development, and devise policy pathways for enabling its local governments, school districts, utilities, businesses, and citizens to become fully powered by renewables.
Visit Michael and the RENEW Wisconsin booth at TheEnergyFair!
Booth A20 | www.renewwisconsin.org
INTERVIEW THREE: Perspectives on Changes to Sustainable and Energy Efficient Construction Practices
For some perspective on how approaches to sustainable and energy efficient construction have changed over the last 30 years we talked with Mark Klein, founding member of the MREA, current board member, and owner of Gimme Shelter Construction, Inc.
Mark is a founding member of the MREA, and served on the board for 25 years. He served as Vice President of the organization for half of those years. His business, Gimme Shelter Construction, Inc. of Amherst, designs and builds energy-efficient homes and masonry stoves. Mark and his wife, Ellen Davis, have lived in an off-grid home since the purchase of their first solar panel in 1979.
MREA: Mark, thanks for sitting down with us to provide some perspective on how approaches to sustainable and energy efficient construction have changed over the last 30 years. To get started, please tell us a bit about yourself and your work.
Mark: I grew up helping my father build our family home and have used the basic skills and knowledge he shared with me for the past 45 years designing, building, and repairing homes in Central Wisconsin. I came of age in the early 70’s with the Whole Earth Catalog and the OPEC Oil Embargo, and was one of many young people pursuing a vision of sustainability, which was commonly called the “back to the land” movement. With a group of friends we acquired an old farmstead and lived in an old farmhouse for a few years; my wife, Ellen, and I started to build an off-grid home in the fall of 1978 using salvage materials and hand tools. Forty years of evolving our homestead life off-grid has given us a pretty clear perspective on the challenges of sustainable lifestyles. Some friends and I formed Gimme Shelter in 1987, and we have been designing and building homes in Central Wisconsin for the past 32 years.
MREA: What noteworthy changes have you seen in sustainable and energy efficient construction over the last 30 years? What has surprised you the most?
Mark: The most significant changes have been in the evolution of the discipline of Building Science, which involves the application of data, testing, and analysis to the construction and performance of buildings. The biggest and most exciting “surprise” is the evolution and availability of photovoltaic electricity to homeowners. When we purchased our first two Solarex panels in 1979 we paid around $300.00 for each 30 watt panel, which is around $1,000.00 in 2019 dollars. Today for $1,000.00 you can purchase around 1,400 watts. Equally amazing are the inverters and controls, and now batteries, that have revolutionized our ability to efficiently capture and use this amazing resource.
MREA: With all of the changes, what has stayed the same?
Mark: Much of what is common practice in modern energy efficient construction today is the direct result of the innovations pioneered by progressive builders in the 70s and 80s. These early projects were an opportunity to observe, test, and refine best practices. We still strive to build homes that are durable, healthy, energy-efficient, and hopefully bring a little joy to the residents.
MREA: Have people changed what they want in a ‘sustainable’ building?
Mark: People still want utility, comfort, and beauty in their homes; we have become much more sophisticated in understanding the micro and macro implications of our decisions.
MREA: And finally, what trends do you see that will influence the future of sustainable and energy efficient construction?
Mark: The best homes being built today are constructed of environmentally-friendly and resilient materials, have high levels of air sealing and insulation, good indoor air quality using low VOC materials, and appropriate ventilation. They are generally all electric with grid-tied PV systems and air source heat pumps.
A trend that I think is worth noting is the potential of carbon sequestration in home construction. Building homes which capture and store carbon by favoring wood and plant by-products is a simple way of utilizing the awesome power of trees and plants to help mitigate climate change.
Visit Mark’s booth during TheEnergyFair!
Gimme Shelter Construction, Inc.
Booths X20-22 |www.gimmeshelteronline.com
INTERVIEW FOUR: Perspectives on Changes to Sustainable Farm and Garden Practices
Sustainable Farm and Garden has always had a special place at The Energy Fair. And new this year we’re offering two sustainable farm and garden tours! For some perspective on how approaches to sustainable farm and garden practices have changed over the last 30 years, we talked with Lisa Kivirist, & John Ivanko of Inn Serendipity, Co-Authors of Soil Sisters, Homemade for Sale, Farmstead Chef, ECOpreneuring, and Rural Renaissance.
LISA KIVIRIST & JOHN IVANKO
Ivanko reports on emerging technology issues for outlets such as Off the Grid Living and Mother Earth News and is the co-author of six children’s books, including To Be A Kid. Kivirist covers women’s issues in food and farming and wrote Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers. This husband-and-wife team run the award-winning Inn Serendipity Farm and B&B outside Monroe, completely powered by renewable energy. Their B&B features local, seasonal vegetarian cuisine prepared with ingredients harvested from the Inn’s organic growing fields. Pictured is Lisa, John, and their son, Liam (17) who has been to The Energy Fair just about every year of his life!
MREA: Lisa & John, thanks for sitting down with us to provide some perspective on how the U.S. farming industry has changed over the last 30 years. In your time working in the farming industry, what changes have you seen, and what has surprised you the most?
LISA & JOHN: The continued overall growth of the organic and sustainable agriculture movement has catapulted farming forward in inspiring ways. This increase of people seeking out local food and wanting a direct farmer connection opens up opportunities for new businesses and farm operations to launch. We were driven to write our first book, Rural Renaissance, because we had learned so much in our start-up years at Inn Serendipity and encountered others interested in self-reliance, homesteading and starting their own rural-based livelihoods. The resource didn’t exist so we created it. It’s fabulous to see the Energy Fair continue to thrive by folks gathering and learning face-to-face. We continue to discover so much every year. The MREA has been pivotal to our success at powering our farm completely with renewable energy, plugging in our car instead of filing up at a pump and even revitalizing an outbuilding by building it with straw bale construction.
We’ve also seen a strong growth in farm diversification, with more operations like ours running multiple businesses. This strategy, as we write about in ECOpreneuring, models nature by diversifying income sources that creatively support each other, as we have found with running the B&B farm stay, producing cottage food products in our home kitchen and teaching workshops and a webinar on launching your own home bakery. Just like in the natural world, diversify makes us stronger and serves up a healthier bottom line.
MREA: With all this change, what challenges has the industry overcome and what challenges remain?
Lisa & John: Public education fuels much of the growth of sustainable agriculture and is a core motivation in our writing, particularly books like Farmstead Chef with recipes and resources for cooking seasonal in your kitchen to Soil Sisters supporting women growers. Bringing the stories of farmers and entrepreneurs leading the sustainability movement connects us to our food sources. Still, we have a long way to go on the energy use front and mitigating climate change. A big part of this for us has been walking the talk, taking action on our farm to do our part to live lighter on the Earth. This involves everything from completely powering the farm by renewable energy for the past 17 years to rebuilding soil health through organic practices, adding up to us being a carbon negative business, sequestering more carbon dioxide annually than we emit from our business operations and our lifestyle.
MREA: What advice would you give to someone looking to break into the farming industry?
Lisa & John: Remember you are not alone! It’s the collaborative spirit of the sustainability community that fuels and supports us all. While we have been adding compost and nutrients to our growing fields for now over twenty years, we quickly realized we also need to prioritize nurturing a healthy community, developing friendships by opening sharing what we have.
We quickly encountered such support with the renewable energy community when MREA pioneer Bob Ramlow came to our farm in 1997 to install our solar thermal system (which is still in operation today). Back then, there were few solar thermal installers but Bob did more than put in piping and panels, he mentored us in renewable energy and first introduced us to The Energy Fair. We even camped on his land back when the Fair was at the County Fairgrounds in Amherst; he knew we were scraping by back then like so many homesteaders when you first move to the country. Bob and his wife Marguerite inspired us to share what we’ve learned not over the last 22 years.
Today, you will find an array of dedicated non-profit groups supporting your farm business start-up, sometimes opening up new ideas under the diversification umbrella. We recently worked with Renewing the Countryside to launch a free training manual for farmers interested in getting into on-farm food service, such as pizza nights and farm-to-table dinners. “Come & Get It: What You Need to Know to Serve Food on Your Farm” helps farmers navigate and understand regulations for serving food and learn from case studies of successful operations before investing to make sure it is a right fit for you. A new revised guide was just released this year.
MREA: What role do you see renewable energy playing in U.S. agriculture?
Lisa & John: Renewable energy can play a much larger role on farms, but really needs stronger leadership and financial commitment from our elected officials. Rebate and grant programs helped us make the economics work for our 10kW Bergey wind turbine and most recently, a 10.8 kW photovoltaic system. To continue to grow this movement, we need long-term commitment in both policy and funding priorities.
Lisa’s other hat is working with women in sustainable agriculture, supporting women farmers through the In Her Boots project, an award-winning training venture she launched and still runs for the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service (MOSES). Kicking off the Soil Sisters weekend on August 2, Lisa will be facilitating an In Her Boots workshop at Riemer Family Farm in Brodhead, bringing together a day of resources and inspiring success stories to help women farmers succeed.
MREA: And finally, what makes you most optimistic about the future of sustainable farming?
Lisa & John: Supporting new business upstarts through our writing and workshops is immensely gratifying and inspiring. We love coming to the Energy Fair because we meet so many people with inspiring new ideas and positive energy. Stop by our Inn Serendipity booth at the Fair with your questions. We look forward to helping however we can.
Barriers can often be opportunities. We encountered this when we first learned about cottage food laws, state-specific laws that allow folks to start non-hazardous food businesses out of their home kitchen, side-stepping the expense of a commercial kitchen. We found many people didn’t know they could do this and that inspired us to write Homemade for Sale to serve as a national resource for cottage food business startups. When we realized Wisconsin was one of the few states in the country that banned the sale of home bakery goods, Lisa and a team of women farmers successful sued the state to lift the ban. Come to our Homemade for Sale workshop at the Fair to learn more and stop by our booth for some of John’s “Go Solar” hand-decorated sugar cookies along with recipe ideas to use more of your farm-raised produce in baked goods.
Visit Lisa and John’s Booth at The Energy Fair!
Inn Serendipity Farm and B&B
Booth A31 | www.innserendipity.com
INTERVIEW FIVE: Perspectives on Changes to Clean Transportation Technology
Over the past 30 years, we’ve seen tremendous interest about clean transportation from Energy Fair attendees, and at the 2018 Energy Fair we unveiled a 19 kW Solar Canopy charging station for electric vehicles (PV + EV= Driving on Sunshine)! For some perspective on how approaches to clean transportation, and electric vehicles have changed over the last 30 years we talked with past Energy Fair Keynote, Dr. Ngalula Sandrine Mubenga.
Dr. Ngalula Sandrine Mubenga
Dr. Ngalula Sandrine Mubenga, PE and Assistant Professor at the Engineering Technology Department at the University of Toledo, Ohio, where she received her Bachelor’s (2005), Master’s (2008) and Doctorate (2017) degrees in Electrical Engineering with honors. She was named the 2018 Engineer of the Year by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers –Toledo section. She was a keynote speaker at The 27th Energy Fair. Sandrine is pictured next to the first 3D printed Car.
MREA: Sandrine, thanks for sitting down with us to provide some perspective on how approaches to clean transportation have changed over the last 30 years. To get started, please tell us a bit about yourself and your work in clean transportation.
Sandrine: I am Dr. Ngalula Sandrine Mubenga, PE and Assistant Professor at the Engineering Technology Department at the University of Toledo, Ohio, where I received the Bachelor’s (2005), Master’s (2008) and Doctorate (2017) degrees in Electrical Engineering with honors. I was named the 2018 Engineer of the Year by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers –Toledo section.
My research areas include battery management systems, electric vehicles, and renewable energy systems. Our battery research won the 2018 IEEE National Aerospace & Electronics Conference Best Poster Award in the USA, while our hybrid electric vehicle research won the 2008 University of Toledo EECS Dept. Most Outstanding Thesis Award. As far as clean transportation goes, I have made an electric vehicle hybrid, by integrating a fuel cell to it so that the hybrid EV could run off hydrogen gas. This is a clean technology because the only byproduct is water. I also developed a solar powered hydrogen generating station that would decompose water into hydrogen and oxygen so that I could pump the hydrogen into my hybrid EV.
One of the bottlenecks of clean transportation and renewable energy system is battery energy storage. That is why recently I have been focusing my research on battery management systems for Lithium ion (Li-ion). Li-ion batteries are used in clean transportation because they have the highest power density and their cost keeps decreasing. Unfortunately, overtime these batteries are subjected to the weak cell issue, which limits the capacity of the battery pack to that of the weakest cell and increases the risk of fire. We have developed the Bilevel Equalizer, a new energy storage solution to make battery packs in electric vehicles, satellites, planes, and grid stations last longer and cost less. Before the bilevel equalizer, battery makers and automotive manufacturers balanced the cell voltages in a large battery pack using either a passive circuit, which loses more energy, or an active circuit, which is 10 times more expensive. Our new technology called a bilevel equalizer is the first hybrid that combines the high performance of an active equalizer with the low cost of the passive equalizer. Experiments have shown that the bilevel equalizer increases the discharge capacity of lithium ion batteries by about 30%, and the pack lasts longer because the cells are balanced. I am also the founder and CEO of SMIN Power Group, a solar developer operating mainly in the D.R. Congo since 2013.
Recently I founded STEM DRC Initiative, a non-profit organization that promotes Science Technology Engineering and Match in the DRC, USA, and the rest of the world. I was a keynote speaker at The 27th Energy Fair and had a great time meeting a vibrant community of like-minded people.
MREA: Wow! What an impressive list of accomplishments. We really enjoyed your keynote in 2016, your story is truly inspiring. What noteworthy changes have you seen in clean transportation over the last 30 years? What has surprised you the most?
Sandrine: First, there has been more global acceptance of clean transportation as a priority to combat climate change. In the US, about 30% of pollution comes from the transportation sector. Most major car manufacturers have announced that new car models will have electric drivetrain, which is a low carbon option.
Second, the cost of energy storage has been decreasing due to technological advances. The type of batteries used in clean transportation have drastically changed. In the past Lead Acid and NiMH were preferred batteries while, Li-ion batteries were deemed too expensive. Now, because of technological advances, the cost of Li-ion batteries (energy storage) has been decreasing and it seems to be a continuing trend. As a result, more and more clean transportation is using Li-ion batteries to store energy. Another surprise has been the electrification of transportation, even for the heavy duty segment. Companies are looking into cargo trucks and forklifts that are electric or hybrid. In terms of aerospace, when I attended the 2018 National Aerospace conference in Dayton, I was surprised to learn that the military is actively researching and prototyping all-electric airplanes. When I asked them what type batteries have been most promising, they stated that Li-ion batteries are the future of all-electric airplanes.
The third is autonomous vehicles. We now have multiple car companies working on commercially available autonomous vehicles. The degree of autonomy is rated from level 1 through 5. Most commercially available autonomous vehicle are at most a class 2, such as the Tesla S3; there are a lot of policies and work that needs to be done to get to a level 5.
The fourth major change is the type of fuel or biofuel. We started this area with fuel such as ethanol coming from edible crops like corn or sugarcane, then we moved to creating biofuel from non-edible sources. Algae have become an interesting area of research for biofuel mainly because they do not compete with the food supply of humans.
Lastly, the different car sharing programs, such as Uber, have been disruptive. Perhaps in the future, individuals will no longer own their car, but will rather share them. We also notice that transportation is more connected now. Another game changer that we must take note of is 3D printing a vehicle. 3D printing a vehicle allows one to print a vehicle at the site, and at a reduced price depending on the size of the vehicle. It is convenient, on-demand, fast and can be cost effective.
MREA: With all this change, what challenges have we overcome and what challenges remain?
Sandrine: Most people are focused on the electrification of transportation. But what will happen to all these batteries when they reach their end of life? They would most likely end up in the landfill. A few may be recycled but we have a ways to go before Li-ion reach a 90% recycling rate like lead acid. Is there a way to reuse the batteries from the EV and HEV? These are serious challenges that must be solved to manage waste.
When batteries from EV and HEV reach end of life, they can still contain up to 80% of their capacity. So by changing their usage, there is an opportunity to create a market for second life Li-ion batteries. For instance these batteries can be used for energy storage in grid applications or for renewable energy systems. Therefore, because they are second life batteries, they would have a minimal cost compared to new Li-ion batteries.
With the bi-level equalizer, we can take second life batteries from EV and use them to store energy for grid applications for an additional five years or so. Because our technology increases the capacity and longevity of used batteries, the bilevel equalizer can help create a circular economy for used batteries coming from EV and HEV.
MREA: What advice would you give to someone thinking about purchasing an EV?
Sandrine: Go for it! Look for incentives in your state. There is a growing community of EV and HEV owners and it has become easier to buy a used HEV. When I was manager of Electrical Engineering at the University of Toledo, I was in charge of energy management. I upgraded the lighting in 30 buildings on campus with more efficient lights thereby decreasing the energy usage and the carbon footprint of the university. Our project decreased the energy consumption on campus, and Toledo Edison sent us a rebate check because we had increased the energy efficiency on campus. We used funds from the rebate check to purchase a used HEV for the department and student interns, and the rest was used to create a scholarship fund for students interested in studying sustainability. This experience helped me realize how easy it was to purchase an HEV nowadays and their price is competitive with that of internal combustion engine vehicles.
MREA: What role do you see renewable energy playing in the growing transition to clean transportation?
Sandrine: Renewable energy will definitely play an important role in the transition to clean transportation. It can be used to recharge electric vehicles or to generate the fuel for clean transportation. For instance, solar canopies are used to recharge EVs. Solar PV roads that generate electricity and charge the vehicles by induction are already being made in China. Small vertical axis wind turbines are placed along the road and spin based on the traffic flow, these can be seen in Detroit , Michigan.
MREA: And finally, what trends do you see that will influence the future of clean transportation? And what makes you most optimistic about the future of clean transportation?
Sandrine: 1. Autonomous vehicles is a growing trend that will influence clean technology. China is making drone unmanned autonomous vehicle “taxi” that costs around $40,000.
2. Second-life li-ion batteries, with the bi-level equalizer, we can take second life batteries from EV and use them in battery energy storage for grid applications for an additional five years. Because our technology increases the capacity and longevity of used batteries, the bilevel equalizer can help create a circular economy for used batteries coming from EV and HEV. This makes me very optimistic. Another trend is the use of nanotechnology and nanomaterial. Nanomaterial have allowed us to generate hydrogen on board, and therefore Honda, which is a major car manufacturer, is looking into hydrogen cars that can be commercially available. Some people think that in the future people will no longer own cars but would rather share them within a community. Car sharing/car pooling such as Uber will continue to grow in the future as these are preferred means for millenials.
Learn more about Dr. Ngalula Sandrine Mubenga and her work here.
The MREA would like to extend a special thanks to John, Michael, Mark, Lisa and John Kivirist, for participating in these interviews, and sharing their insight and perspectives on issues pertaining to clean energy and sustainable living over the last three decades.
LEARN MORE / GET TICKETS TO THE 30th ANNIVERSARY ENERGY FAIR!