Interview with Prof. Alexi Arango on Energy, Solar and Carbon Emissions

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Posted on by Conor MacGuire

An interview with Professor Alexi Arango, Alexi C. Arango is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics at Mount Holyoke College. He holds ten patents in fields ranging from electrophoretic displays found in e-readers to organic light emitting diodes (a new type of efficient lighting) to quantum dot solar cells. At Mount Holyoke, Arango has built the Next-Generation Solar Cell Fabrication Lab, which investigates solar cells that aim to be both highly efficient and less expensive. Arango holds a B.S. in physics from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from MIT.

Here is our Conversation with Him

Q1. Could you describe in your own words a little bit about what you do and what your research focuses on?

Professor Arango: I’m an Assistant Professor of Physics at Mount Holyoke College.  My research focusses on next-generation solar photovoltaics. Imagine solar cells that are ultra-lightweight, flexible, easily manufactured and easy to install. That’s what we are trying to make happen.

Q2. Your blog has showcased the benefits of the Passivhaus standard, do you feel that houses designed to minimalize energy use have a commercial future

Professor Arango: Absolutely. There is growing concern about carbon emissions. Demand for renewables is surging. We have increasing fossil fuel costs and volatility. It is just a matter of time before we see a large scale re-examination of our building practices. Super-insulated and tightly sealed buildings are well positioned to capitalize on these trends.

Q3. How did you find the cost differential building to the Passivhaus standard as compared to other less energy efficient building methods? What were the biggest challenges you faced during the project?

Professor Arango: Building a zero carbon house didn’t cost me an extra cent! I had a fixed budget and I designed the building I wanted within that budget. Could I have built a bigger house for the same amount of money with less insulation? Yes. But that is not what I was looking for. I wanted a comfortable, beautiful home that didn’t use fossil fuels. Interestingly, most of the challenges we faced were not directly related to energy efficiency. Planning, timing, and communication were the biggest hurdles. One aspect of the Passivhaus standard that is annoying, however, is the sharp cutoff in the heating demand requirement. I would like to see a sliding scale rating that allows for a range of heating demands. This would have saved us a lot of money. We ended up having to undertake an expensive redesign at the last minute to ensure that we would hit the Passivhaus target.

Q4. The blog describes the house as being heated only by solar power, you describe how is the heat transmitted in the house and what level of maintenance as homeowner are required?

Professor Arango: The house is heated by the sun on sunny days. Backup heat from mini-splits provides the heat on cloudy days. There is some maintenance. On cloudy days, you might have to turn on the mini-splits for an hour or two in the winter. In addition, carbon dioxide levels in the home can rise if the ventilation system isn’t keeping up. In this case, you might have to increase the fan speed when guests come over or if you are doing jumping jacks.

Q5. The Renewable Energy Course you teach focuses on a number of things, including methods of converting the energy infrastructure for use with renewable sources. How do rate the success or lack thereof, of integrating renewable energy technology into the energy mix? What are the biggest obstacles to moving towards more wide spread use of renewable technology both on a micro and macro level?

Professor Arango: Renewables are a stunning success story. Both solar and wind have grown faster than Apple since 2003. The problem is that they started at a small fraction of the electricity mix. It will take at least 20 years until wind and solar compose a significant fraction of the electricity mix. Without a World War II scale mobilization effort, it will be next to impossible for the industry to grow at a faster rate. Unfortunately, at the current rate, renewables are not growing fast enough to avoid catastrophic climate change.

Aside from scale-up issues, the biggest concern is energy storage. Exciting new battery technologies like the flow battery for home installations and the lithium air battery for vehicles are promising. However, it typically takes 20 years to bring new battery technology to market, which is not fast enough.We are seriously at the point where we need everyone on the planet to stop what they are doing and start working toward a cleaner, more efficient energy future.

Q6. The research on ‘third generation’ solar panels is both very interesting and exciting. Could you expand on some of the possible applications of this technology?

Professor Arango: Picture your collapsable umbrella that you might carry with you on a rainy day. It is lightweight, can be taken anywhere, takes up almost no space, and expands easily on demand. That’s exactly what we need for solar energy collection. A small footprint device, protected from the elements when the sun is gone, that expands when the sun is available. Once we crack the weight issue, the possibilities are endless. A single solar umbrella with a lightweight tracking system could generate more energy than most residential rooftop systems today — and you could put it in your pocket. Removing the need for protective glass and aluminum framing is critical. We are studying alternative semiconductors like organic dyes, conducting plastics, certain types of paints, and nanoparticles to create flexible thin films that are compatible with flexible substrates.

Q7. From a previous interview you mentioned that the fundamental physics and economics of renewables will eventually push them past fossil fuels, is this change really inevitable? Where do you see the biggest challenges and greatest opportunities for advancement in the coming years?

Professor Arango: It is import to realize that fossil fuels are marginal sources of energy.  They are difficult to extract, dirty to use, and inefficient. Few of us know that powering an incandescent light bulb with electricity from a coal power plant is only 1% efficient.  Likewise, a typical car is only 1% efficient at moving the driver. You just can’t get away with that type of reckless use of energy forever. Most don’t realize that wind and solar are now cheaper than fossil fuels across most of the US. And still, we are at the tip of the iceberg in terms of our understanding of what is possible. We need to better understand how to make small scale wind power economical, how to increase the efficiency of solar, and how to make an economical battery that relies on earth abundant materials. Today, only a small fraction of research dollars in energy go toward renewables.

Q8. “The major new technology coming down the line is going to be the ability to store electricity on site at your home” – This would certainly make a big difference to the practical application of energy generating technology, both on a micro and macro level, do you see this as the key development in the transfer to Renewable technology?

Professor Arango: Yes. Energy storage is what is missing right now. The emergence of rooftop solar is a wonderfully democratic, grassroots transition that gives ordinary homeowners the power to become self sufficient and sustainable, but right now those with rooftop solar are essentially using the grid as a battery. The grid, however, is an expensive, insecure and inefficient way to delivery electricity. With increasingly unpredictable and worsening weather events, the grid will also become progressively more unreliable. We’ve all seen the remarkable progress made in battery lifetimes and storage in our laptops and smartphones. Local energy storage needs a market, fundamental research, and aggressive subsidies to experience the same rapid technological improvements that solar has already experienced.

Q9. And finally, as I ask with most of our interviewee’s, where do you see the greatest challenge in moving towards greater use of renewable technology? What technology are you most excited by and why? Which are of research do you feel has shown the greatest progress in recent years?

Professor Arango: The single greatest challenge to widespread adoption of renewables is not technological, it is our corrupt political system. Renewables are overwhelmingly popular, but legislation rarely reflects the will of the people. Instead it reflects the will of established institutions. Whether they are corporate, educational, or nongovernmental, our major institutions are all accustomed to fossil fuels and therefore have no incentive to lead the transition away from fossil fuels. We need grassroots movements to build new institutions from the ground up that don’t rely on fossil fuels.

In terms of technological progress in the building industry, I’d like to see more work done on ventilation systems. The list of flaws with ventilation is long. Ventilation rates recommended by Passivhaus are too low to maintain healthy air in a tightly sealed home.  In cold climates, some ventilators use a tremendous amount of energy to prevent the core from freezing. Humidity can often be too low or too high. There is no way to for the homeowner to ensure everything is working properly. No battery backup is available in case of a power failure. No built-in air quality monitoring is offered. Despite all of these flaws, ventilation is one of the most expensive systems in the home. There must be a better way.

This was a short interview with Alexi Arango. Hope you all liked this informative conversation. Do share your thoughts with us in our comment section.

Thanks,

Green Energy Scotland Ltd.

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