FREEING ENERGY

Podcast 047: Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus – the government’s surprising role in supercharging solar technology innovation

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin

Many of us think of the US government’s role in solar innovation in terms of laboratories, deep science, and long term projects. But that is only part of the story. Listen in as Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus, Director of the Solar Energy Technologies Office (SETO) in the Department of Energy (DOE) shares how the US government is accelerating innovation with startups, helping commercialize new solutions, funding new products, and paving the way for breakthrough new technologies, all with the mission of making solar affordable and available to every American.

Here are some of our favorite quotes from Becca’s interview:

I think there are really exciting opportunities to think about how we can change the way that we produce and use energy, especially to go back to the local level. That offers opportunities for people who want to have more control over where they get their energy supply, that offers opportunities for resilience. It offers opportunities for lower costs. So I’m really excited to see how local energy really changes the game.

It turns out that there’s often a way that innovation can blow past what many may think to be barriers when you’re looking just straight down the road you’re on rather than being open to other pathways.

….by making connections between entrepreneurs, to the facilities, to the people who can help them, that we’re able to really help speed those cycles of innovation.

We just announced a new set of awards that’s looking at how to better integrate solar into agricultural land. There’s some early research we funded that shows us there’s actually scenarios and ways that putting solar panels over crop production in some cases can increase crop production while increasing solar output because the panels are cooler.

You have to be open to where the results take you and where you can get the greatest impact from what you’re working on.

Becca and Bill during podcast recording
Bill Nussey and Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus

You can also listen to this podcast and others in our series on these platforms:

Listen on Apple Podcasts

Transcript

Bill Nussey:
Welcome to all of our listeners at Freeing Energy, we have another really fun and exciting, and I think incredibly eye-opening interview today. So, first of all, I want to thank all of you for taking some time to listen in. The world’s a little crazy right now, as you may have picked up, and we really appreciate your sharing your time with us and hopefully the things we’ll talk about today will inspire you and help us all get through this crazy nutty time we’re in. So today’s guest is one of the most visible and influential leaders in the clean energy industry. It’s fair to say that she oversees a good portion of money invested in research and development for all of the US government into the areas of solar and its associated technologies. I would like to welcome Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus, Director of the Solar Energy Technologies Office within the US Department of Energy. So welcome Becca.

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
Thanks, Bill, it’s great to be here.

Bill Nussey:
So we love to start right in on the personal side of this. And from what I’ve learned, you took an interest in solar energy pretty early in high school. So tell us how you got started with it? What was your first realization that solar might be something that you were passionate about and even build a career around?

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
Yeah, my interest in solar and develops from a deep passion I had for improving our environment. I was actually in second grade when we had a unit on the burning of the rainforest and that really lit a fire in me and I realized I wanted to dedicate my energy to helping reduce the negative impacts humans were having on our planet. I also knew I loved math. And so I decided I was probably… Would do well with an engineering career, and I figured I wanted to be an environmental engineer.

But it was in high school, we had an assignment to shadow someone who was in a career we were interested in. So I got out the phone book because that’s what we had at the time and looked up the environmental engineers in my county. There were only few and they all worked at the local sewage treatment plant. So after spending a day there, I thought, well, maybe environmental engineering is not for me and I stepped back and I thought more broadly. And I thought about the energy challenges that faced our planets and got excited about renewable energy and what greater source of renewable energy do we have than solar, and that’s where it started for me. My father’s a professor, he’s a medical researcher and doctor. And I think that led me to think about an academic career working on solar energy research.

Bill Nussey:
So it’s It was probably fair to say that your career in solar was a near miss on sewage treatment. So I think on behalf of the solar world, we’re very excited that you took that turn there at the last second. I also want to just comment that I don’t even remember being in second grade, so the fact that you were forming this vision of yourself in second grade is daunting and inspiring, but it also points to some of the amazing stuff that you’ve done. So we fast forward a little bit to college. You graduated from Princeton magna cum laude with a degree in electrical engineering. I got an undergraduate in electrical engineering, barely survived it, tip my hat to you. Then you got advanced degrees in material science and essentially bottom line, you’re obviously incredibly bright and a lot of our listeners are early in their careers and some of them are still in college and they’re asking the question, what do I do as I move through my years in college, might I get a degree afterwards? What motivated you to dive into these areas and go so far as to getting a PhD?

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
The PhD really came from a desire to do research and knowing that solar energy, as a technology, was not yet affordable enough for widespread use, and so really research was needed to get it there. So I got really interested in research, a PhD was a good path to that. But I wouldn’t necessarily recommend the path I took to picking my field of study. I think I was way too focused on this end goal of solar energy research, wasn’t necessarily sufficiently focused on what I enjoyed. Actually, I went to Princeton largely because of professor Sigurd Wagner, who was the only professor I could find on my college tours, who were still doing solar energy research in a time when there was very limited funding because fossil fuels were so cheap. He was in the electrical engineering department and that’s why I majored in electrical engineering. And that got me started in electronic materials, which was really the intersection of electrical engineering and material science.

By the time I was going into PhD programs, many EE departments were really focused heavily just on the computer science aspects so a lot of that electronic materials work was in material science. But I got advice in college when I was trying to choose my major. Some wise people gave me advice that I should pursue what I was interested in and then find ways to apply that to solar energy. And reflecting back on my experiences, I think that’s exactly the advice I’d give to folks that we have in college today. I largely ignored it but it makes it very true to me and that it was wise to work in that. There’s so many ways to get involved in whatever area you’re interested in and applying the talents that you have in the best way is probably the way to have the greatest impact and to enjoy what you’re doing the most.

Bill Nussey:
That’s awesome, thank you. One of the things that surprises me as I’ve met so many amazing people in this industry in leadership roles is they have a common thread of either deep interest or actual experience in working in other places in the world, often poorer parts of the world. And so I understand that you did some early work and did some traveled well outside of the United States and worked in some low-income areas. Can you tell us a bit about what you did?

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
Yes, when I was in graduate school, I worked with a small team of us, there were four of us who went to Tibet to look at how solar and batteries could be used to meet lighting needs and remote villages that didn’t have electricity, where the main lighting source of in kerosene or other fuel oil which were really terrible for indoor air quality. That really hit home, in some of those travels, I remember being in a home where the walls were black with the soot that just came from the flame that was burning for their light. It was a really powerful experience to think about the potential for solar and renewable energy to improve the quality of life for some of these folks, but it was also an experience where I learned a lot on a practical level. We visited some remote villages where solar panels had been donated and they had since broken.

So folks had come in with lots of great intentions, had left these folks with solar panels and lead acid battery to provide lighting and radio and sometimes TV. And then they had moved on somewhere else and when the panel broke, then these folks were in some cases worse off than before they started, because fuel could be a several days journey away, it was expensive, some of these communities didn’t necessarily have money. They were rural and subsisted on their land. And it really made me realize the importance of life cycle solutions, of operations and maintenance to the energy puzzle, that there aren’t necessarily quick fixes where you can drop and go, but you really have to think about the full life cycle of energy technology and the full impacts when you want to go in and help improve quality of life.

Bill Nussey:
That’s a great story and a great insight. As much as I would love to. And so many of us would love to just think of solar and batteries as technologies without that entire life cycle approach, it’s insufficient. And particularly for people that have no alternatives, so that’s a great story, thank you for sharing it. So I guess after that, you also spent some time in the startup world, which is where I come from and a lot of our listeners have been in startups or are interested in getting into earlier stage solar companies and definitely want to talk a lot about what the US government and your department’s doing in that area today? But you had some of your own experience, which gives you a great place to be building this stuff from. Can you tell us about what you did?

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
Yes. I worked at Solar Junction, which was a startup company and I was one of the first employees. A startup company developing very high efficiency, multi-function solar cells. Those are solar cells where you stack different materials on top of each other to more efficiently extract light across the solar spectrum. And it was a lot of fun from a technical perspective. We got to work on some of the best performing solar cell materials there are. Our team set a couple of world records. We really push the frontiers of what was possible from a technology perspective, but had kind of the opposite experience from a market perspective. These cells were intended to supply the concentrating photovoltaic industry, which was taking a different approach to try to get to low cost solar energy. And the approach was to use optics, lenses or mirrors to concentrate a lot of light onto a small piece of semiconductor. And this was a strategy, that at the time, and when we kicked off and it started our work, looked promising to get below the cost of the Silicon solar panels that were thought to have some fundamental limits to how much lower those costs come.

What anyone who’s been in the in solar for the last decade knows is that panel costs have just plummeted more rapidly than I think anyone could have ever predicted. They’ve blown past, so many times people said there was a fundamental limit to cost where you just can’t go below this is the fundamental bottom threshold, and now we’re, you know, three, four or five times lower than where those limits were thought to be so many times. So after several years, after doing some really fun technical things, it became clear that the concentrating photovoltaic industry was going to have a very hard road and maybe didn’t have a path at all to beating Silicon and to get to market. And so that’s a time where I was still very, very passionate about solar, but wanted to step back and really connect to the big picture and think about the different technologies and coming to the Department of Energy was just a great opportunity to look across technology, really thinking about the big picture and to get involved quite broadly in solar innovation.

Bill Nussey:
Made you decide, of all the areas you might’ve got into solar, universities, some of the national labs, which are obviously, we’ll talk about, part of the Department of Energy. But why the Department of Energy and why public service?

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
Yeah. I’ve always been drawn to the idea of having an impact through public service. And another appeal for the Department of Energy was really the strong connection to the big picture, the ability to be part of a portfolio approach. After being part of a technology that didn’t work out in terms of market appeal here could work across a number of different technologies. We can build a research portfolio where we don’t know which ones are going to be most successful, but we can fund a number of different technology approaches and see which ones make the most progress. And that connection to the big picture, the ability to be involved across this diversity of approaches has been just tremendously fun for me and I’m really, really enjoying it. There’s so much to learn, there’s always something new and it feels like an unending set of challenges to work on.

Bill Nussey:
I love the way you described that Becca. And one of the things that surprised me the most about my work with the Department of Energy and some of the national labs over the last couple of years, and the people I’ve met, is that by and large, to a person, none of you are what I was taught I’m supposed to think about people who work in the government, right? What did they say is the scariest sentence in the English language is I’m from the government and I’m here to help. And so there’s the stereotype of governments and government scientists and things like that. And to a person, I haven’t met anyone like that.

And I find not only folks that I’ve met to be fun and exciting, they’re really inspiring. Your story is inspiring and I have the same feeling. I interviewed an old colleague of yours, Charlie Gay, a few weeks back. And I just left that interview with just like, man, I got to go double my efforts to take on the world. And you have some of that same charisma and vision. And I think it’s just so thrilling to have that kind of energy well in the Department of Energy.

So Becca, you were promoted to the director role about a year ago, so you’re now overseeing all of the solar energy technologies office program, so congratulations by the way. The magnitude of what the DOE and SETO does is just incredible, and I don’t think most people have any real perspective on it. The role that you guys have played in creating this solar revolution is understated and I think underappreciated. So I think it’d be great if you wouldn’t mind sharing some examples of what SETO’s doing or the DOE broadly that highlight just what a unique and powerful role the government’s playing in helping push forward this amazing mission of solar and clean energy.

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
When I stepped into the role about a year ago and knew pretty well what I was getting into, having had the opportunity to serve as a Charlie Gay’s deputy for three years prior to that. He was a tremendous leader to learn from and had a great opportunity to prepare for the role I’m in now. So broadly speaking, my solar energy technologies office is working to make solar more affordable and accessible to support the reliability and resilience of the electricity grid and to enhance the domestic benefits, like job creation, that can come from the solar industry. So it’s a broad and exciting mission and we have a very diverse set of projects. Right now, we have about 400 active projects, which in the past few years have touched nearly every state in the country. Our projects are typically led by national laboratories, universities, businesses, nonprofits, state and local governments, so we have a really diverse portfolio doing a lot of exciting things.

One I can talk about, which you know well, is our American Made Solar Prize Program. And this program we launched a little over three years ago, with goal of speeding the time it takes for entrepreneurs to take new ideas and get them to an actual prototype ready for industry testing. We wanted to support entrepreneurs in moving as quickly as possible because the solar industry is really remarkable in terms of its pace and speed of innovation. And so if you want to compete with a new idea, you also have to be able to move incredibly quickly. So the prize has different stages that support entrepreneurs with not only funding, but also connections to what we call the American Made Network. And the network consists of over a hundred organizations, including DOE’s national laboratories, incubators, facilities for manufacturing, and industry experts.

And our hope here is by making connections between entrepreneurs, to the facilities, to the people who can help them, that we’re able to really help speed those cycles of innovation. And of course your company Solar Inventions was one of our first two winners. And so we have some really exciting work that’s coming out of that program that we’re really excited to be following and we’re in the fourth round now that just opened and the winners from the third round will be announced next month. We also support researchers on more traditional R&D projects, they’re working on new technologies or manufacturing processes. One example of that kind of work is we’re funding an entity called The Energy Materials Corporation, who’s working to scale up manufacturing processes for perovskite solar cells, is the new solar cell technology, using roll-to-roll printers that already exist at Kodak. They’re aiming to coat perovskites at a speed that could make enough solar panels to supply a significant fraction of what’s being installed in the US today. So they’re aiming to utilize these rapid deposition technology to make low cost solar cell materials and we’re supporting their manufacturing, research and development.

Bill Nussey:
That’s cool stuff. I had not heard that anyone was being able… It was working towards printing perovskites that quickly, that’s really exciting, and what a difference that’ll make in costs and deployability. I also noticed, in one of your recent announcements, that you guys put I think $30-$40 million into Heliogen. I’ve known Bill Gross for ages and I was super excited when he told me about that a couple of years ago. And just another example of crazy innovation, he’s using concentrating mirrors, the kind that have traditionally been used for the thermal solar towers but have been somewhat replaced because of the low economics of Silicon solar. But they’re doing this to create hydrogen as a clean green fuel. I was excited to see you guys put money into that, support it, and just the range of things is amazing. And at the risk of going a little outside of solar, I just editorialize and share with our listeners that the Department of Energy helps all kinds of energy. Some of the early work in nuclear and oil and gas and fracking have all helped this country make significant strides in all of those areas.

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
Yeah, absolutely. The DOE is a really large organization, its budget is almost $39 billion currently, and this spans work for nuclear security to energy data, the energy information administration provides a whole variety of data about the energy industry. Loan guarantee programs are part of DOE. DOE funds basic energy sciences, supports DOE 17 national laboratories and includes applied energy research like we have for solar, but also wind and fuel cells and fossil energy and nuclear energy. So it’s an incredible breadth and portfolio and a really fun institution to be a part of.

Bill Nussey:
The breath is amazing to me. And having spent most of my life in software far outside of traditional science, far outside of anything to do with the government, other than the occasional customer, seeing the range of ways that the US government, the Department of Energy helps with research, helps with commercialization, it’s amazing. And so when entrepreneurs come to me and say, “There’s just not a lot of venture capital in this industry.” My first point to them is go look at the Department of Energy. It’s not easier or harder than getting venture capital, it’s just different. But it’s incredibly well aligned with what you want to do as an entrepreneur in clean energy. And so that’s why I was so excited to get you on our podcast today, Becca, because this story, putting a voice in front of that story is I think really important that it is accessible, it’s real. I’ve certainly benefited from it with some of the efforts I’m doing and that’s just a tiny drop in the bucket for all the things that you guys are doing.

Sam Easterby – Interstitial
You may love the idea of having clean local, renewable energy. But what options do you have if you can’t put solar on your roof? A recent US Department of Energy and national renewable energy laboratory report estimates that nearly 50% of consumers and businesses are unable to host photovoltaic systems due to a number of factors. Too much shading, not enough roof, not enough money. But today, there is a powerful option for sharing the sun’s energy that is taking hold across the United States. Community Solar. Community Solar is a distributed solar energy model that allows customers to buy or lease part of a larger offsite shared solar photovoltaic system. Community Solar programs allow renters, tenants, residents, and businesses to enjoy the advantages of solar energy without having to install their own solar energy systems, regardless of where they live. What are some of those advantages? Aside from environmental considerations, community solar projects can help through lower electric bills, more stable rates for that electricity, improve grid stability, and greater access to solar for lower income households.

Today, you can find community solar projects in 39 States, plus Washington, DC. And more and more States are creating policies to support Community Solar. The Department of Energy, through the solar energy technology offices, is spearheading the National Community Solar Partnership. This broad coalition of community solar stakeholders has the ambitious goal of expanding affordable community solar to every American household by 2025. With extensive information and support programs, this effort is helping connect more Americans with clean energy for the first time while allowing more people to save on energy bills, increase their community resilience, enhance job opportunities and spur economic growth. One to learn more about Community Solar and the national community solar partnership? Check out the link we include with this podcast on freeingenergy.com. And don’t forget to like and subscribe to the Freeing Energy Podcast. Now back to Becca and Bill for more insights.

Bill Nussey:
As our listeners know, and hopefully love that our focus here at Freeing Energy is largely around local energy which is generating electricity either on the location. This is, I think, a game-changing part of the emerging solar battery story and not surprisingly, the Department of Energy has got some exciting projects in this specific area. So Becca, can you give us some examples of local energy things that you’re doing?

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
Sure. So one is related to opportunities for solar energy to enhance community resilience. We have two and a half million solar energy systems that are connected to the distribution systems. So these are connected, close to load increasing numbers of battery energy storage systems. And this offers real opportunities to increase our ability to generate power when the grid is out. And so we’re funding research on a number of different levels from supporting micro grids, like the Bronzeville Community micro grid in Chicago, where Commonwealth Edison is working through one of our words as solar energy and storage to help support that microgrids power as well as kind of farther looking concepts where we’re looking at how the grid connected assets can be used, not just in a traditional micro grid setup, but more flexibly in the event of an outage to power the critical loads that are in an area, even outside of a formal micro grid, but more of a flexible kind of ad hoc approach to meeting the loads in real-time based on where the outage is. So that’s some really exciting work that we’re doing on our kind of systems integration side.

Another good example is our National Community Solar partnership. Community Solar is, I think, a really exciting opportunity for people who don’t have the ability to put solar on their own rooftop, maybe you are a renter or you live under a bunch of trees or you don’t have the financial resources to put solar on your own roof, Community Solar is an opportunity to invest in a solar energy system and have it be treated in many ways as though it was on your own rooftop. In many cases, Community Solar can be located near to the communities they serve as well, which offers opportunities for them to be used for some resilience needs at community centers as well.

So our national unity solar partnership is bringing together a whole variety of folks in the community solar space from state and local governments, community organizations, the solar industry, that’s looking to figure out how to develop really good models for community solar that can make community solar affordable to all Americans. And that’s the real goal is by 2025 for all American households to have access to affordable community solar, a specific focus there on access for low-income households as well.

Bill Nussey:
As well, some of the national labs have put out some research on making solar available to low income homes and it’s a really thoughtful stuff, and it’s in many ways, I think solar is going to provide a leveling that is as good as the grid has done, I think can help even more. So great to know that you guys are working on that and it just really displays the incredible diversity of things that you guys are involved with. I hope people who listen to this are as excited about all the areas that our tax dollars are being put to use in. And honestly, I had no idea before I got into this industry and before I met so many of you in the Department of Energy.

Let’s talk about innovation. And that’s most often what I thought of the national labs and the funding that you guys did, which is creating new science, inventing stuff that’s never been seen before, those breathless articles I love to read and PV Magazine about someone breaking the efficiency barrier and having a new inverter or transistor in all kinds of things. And so innovation is probably one of the most common themes of the people who listen in to follow us on that Freeing Energy project. And you guys at the Department of Energy and SETO are really the pointy tip of the spear when it comes to fostering new science and commercializing and into the entire energy industry and particularly into the clean energy industry. You’ve seen hundreds of proposals and funded projects, maybe thousands. What have you learned about innovation that you can share with our audience of innovators and want to be innovators?

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
There’s a lot of fun things to think about here. Some things that first come to mind or when it comes to innovation, you can’t always predict where it’s going to come from. Timelines can be difficult, setting out exact path and expecting to follow that is not often the way to get there. You have to be open to the results that come in, thinking about how you want to pivot, potentially even pivoting to different technology spaces. We have made investments in research that was intended to serve the solar industry, but in fact, found that displays or cell phones or other options were in fact after know pivoting and adjusting the best applications for that technology. And that comes with innovation. You have to be open to where the results take you and where you can get the greatest impact from what you’re working on.

And while you can’t predict always the path you’ll follow, having milestones and goals, we’ve also seen that that can be very transformative. It’s really amazing how often aggressive milestones are hit, things that people don’t think are really possible, but you put your mind to it and there we go, we hit them. Maybe on a related vein, not to be fixed on what some may call fundamental limits, because one of the things we’ve seen in the solar industry, as you know, people may say, oh, there’s a fundamental cost limit or a fundamental materials limit. It turns out that there’s often a way that innovation can blow past what many may things to be barriers when you’re looking just straight down the road you’re on rather than being open to other pathways.

Bill Nussey:
That’s one of the reasons I am excited to help get people from the software tech industry into this industry, because that’s all they know. If they’ve been in it for a decade or two or three, all they’ve ever heard is that Moore’s Law will stop this year and that we won’t be able to make more transistors on a chip and we won’t be able to make software faster, we won’t be able to make it understand spoken English better, and time and time and time again. And so that’s a mindset that’s very unique to the energy space, which has traditionally been very constrained by the laws of physics or at least the perception of that.

And that’s what’s so cool about solar and I love to tell everyone that’s the difference with solar is that it’s a technology and it’s not a fuel. And it changes the economics and the technology curves of this next generation of energy systems and folks, a lot of you that are listening come from the software industry, this stuff you take for granted is a new idea in this energy industry. And Becca and her teams and the [inaudible 00:28:32], we have some great stuff you can intersect with to get on board.

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
Yeah. And just maybe to that, I just love to say that there’s tremendous opportunities for impact I think for those in the software side or data analytics, machine learning, to apply those skills to problems in the solar space, there’s tremendous, tremendous opportunities there for innovation when we bring some of these exciting new fields, more closely into solar.

Bill Nussey:
It was actually Becca that when I worked at IBM, they acquired my company and I was helping run strategy for them, that’s actually what got me excited about the electricity industry was just how undigital it was. It’s one of the last industries in the planet earth that software has barely touched. And it was only when I started looking at that, that I said, “Wait a minute, there’s the even bigger story that solar is about to get cheaper than any other form of energy in the history of humanity.” That actually got me more excited and the two together made me throw away a perfectly good career in software tech and get into this crazy industry, which I love, obviously.

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
Glad you did.

Bill Nussey:
Thank you. And so put on your future glasses for us just for a moment. And you see more than almost anybody about all this incredibly cool stuff coming out. Regale us with some visions of the future of clean energy that you’re seeing, or you might see, or you’d like to see that most of us won’t have perspective on unless we listen to you?

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
I think there’s really exciting opportunities to think about how we can change the way that we produce and use energy, especially to go back to the local level. We’re used to having backup energy generation sources on the grid, but not used to having the potential to have so much of our electricity needs produced, close to load. And that offers a lot of opportunities that offers opportunities for people who want to have more control over where they get their energy supply, that offers opportunities for resilience. It offers opportunities for lower costs. So I’m really excited to see how local energy really changes the game. I’m also really excited about the capabilities we have from the power electronics, primarily our solar inverters and how they can play a major role in the reliability of our electricity grid. So today our electricity grid is reliable largely because of the more conventional power plants that we have on the system that provide inertia, what our nuclear and hydro and natural gas and coal plants put onto the electricity grid, solar and wind produced most of their electricity through power electronics, and they operate in an incredibly different way.

And today we’re not using them to support the stability of the grid, but we’ve run tests and had demonstrations that show that they can do that. And so I’m very excited for the opportunity for these very fast responding devices to become more integral to how we support the stability of the grid and for us to learn how to do that and how to harness those capabilities. I think there’s also incredible opportunities to process all of the data on the grid. And you touched on this a minute ago, Bill, with how much less penetration you’ve seen software in the energy industry, you know, these advanced analytics and machine learning opportunities to really much more quickly digest and look at all of the data that we have from the electricity system. I think our it’s very exciting. We can envision things like automated interconnection reviews. You know, people will think that’s crazy and fraught with challenges, but I really think that if we have the right analytics, we can get to a place where folks were much more comfortable with those kinds of results.

On the other side of things, we fund work in concentrating solar thermal technologies, which are concentrating a lot of sunlight and converting it into heat and thinking about how we can use that heat directly to produce products like fuels or desalinated water. In addition to energy applications, this is an exciting area that we’ve been investing in and are going to continue to invest more in. And I’m also really excited about opportunities for new integrated solar applications, integrating solar into new market opportunities. We just announced a new set of awards that’s looking at how to better integrate solar into agricultural land. There’s some early research we funded that shows us there’s actually scenarios and ways that putting solar panels over crop production in some cases can increase crop production while increasing solar output because the panels are cooler. There’s some really exciting work there looking at new applications for solar panels.

Bill Nussey:
People call that agro-voltaics, which is my second favorite name too when you put solar on water and they call it floto-voltaics. I just imagined you have teams of people in the office there in the basement, Becca, coming up with these names. But if you were interested in this stuff, read the work that NRL and other national labs are putting out on these two areas. And I actually write about them in the book and have articles on my site about both of those topics, because I think they’re, game-changing. Dual use is the general term where you’re taking an existing asset and you’re solarizing it, so to speak.

And I don’t want to let it go on set or on repeated for everyone listening to Freeing Energy and our longtime supporters and fans that Becca, the head of SETO said that local energy is one of the things that’s exciting and she’s looking to in the future. So I just wanted to double highlight that and thank you for pointing it out, go local energy. So as we love to do in our final few minutes with all of our esteemed guests is what we call the lightning round. And we ask everyone the same set of questions and four quick questions and we just want to get your quick thoughtful answers on each of these, and I’m just going to bang through them and tell us what you think. So what excites you most about being in the clean energy industry?

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
The really rapid progress seeing innovation happens so fast and seeing deployment of solar energy storage when growing so rapidly, and we’re seeing new innovations hitting the market almost every year.

Bill Nussey:
Second question, if you could wave a magic wand and see one thing changed in the transition to clean renewable energy what would it be?

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
Maybe taking my government hat off here to give my personal perspective, I would love to see electricity prices that we see as consumers aligned with the cost of generation so that we can understand just how flexible energy load is. As we scale up renewable wind and solar deployment, there’s a lot of focus on energy storage as a solution for making the supply of renewables match the demand. But it could be much cheaper if we find out that we can shift some of our demand to match supply. And I think we just don’t know what the potential is there because we don’t have the right signals today to incentivize people to do that, so I would love to get that information.

Bill Nussey:
I love that. Dynamic pricing, time of use, this is seriously deep weed stuff which I completely agree would be transformative, and that’s going to be probably one of my favorite answers to that question this year. A third question. What do you think will be the single most important change in how we generate store and distribute electricity in the next five years?

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
That’s a big one. There’s a lot of things I could list there, but one I’ll pick today is using power electronics to provide grid services to buy frequency and voltage control to do black started electricity system.

Bill Nussey:
Folks, if you don’t know what black start is, electricity and dirt, and you will love this stuff. So go take a look at it, I wish we could talk to Becca about that for a long time, but we’ll get to our final question. A lot of the folks who listen in on Freeing Energy Podcast really want to make a difference. And what would you say to somebody who asks, “What can I do to help make a change as we accelerate towards clean energy?

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
I would ask them what they’re good at, what they’re passionate about, and then figure out the way to plug those things in because there’s so many different ways to contribute to this transition. We need scientists and engineers to drive innovation. We need entrepreneurs to build new companies. We need people with marketing and legal skills to support them, so much more. The other piece I’d say is that the solar industry is changing, as we’ve been talking about, so incredibly fast, it’s important to help everyone to stay up to date on the state of these technologies. Just in decade ago, solar was four to five times more expensive than conventional resources and sometimes I see people who were doing analyses, they’re still using some of those numbers because they don’t expect that they will have changed significantly in five or eight years.

And they’re not aware that solar is the cheapest source of new generation in many parts of the country and in the world today, and that impacts how they plan and make decisions. So staying on top of this rapidly changing field and helping communicate those changes is also important.

Bill Nussey:
Well, ladies and gentlemen, Freeing Energy audience, I think you’ve heard some fantastic advice, a great inspiring view of the world today and where it’s going. Thank you, Becca, so much for your time today and doing all the great work that you do to move the clean energy movement forward. So really appreciate it and wish you tremendous success in all the work that you do going forward.

Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus:
Thanks Bill for having me on today, it was a lot of fun.

POST'S CATEGORIES

RELATED POSTS

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

SUBSCRIBE

TOPICS

RECENT POSTS