James Fenton on Game-Changing Energy Technology

Our guest today, James Fenton, is the director of the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida – the nation’s largest and most active state-supported renewable energy and energy efficiency institute.

Fenton is also the current secretary of the ECS Board of Directors.

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Below is an excerpt from the conversation:

Roque Calvo: You worked in Doug Bennion’s lab in UCLA for a summer. Bennion is a former ECS president and is well known throughout our community for his contributions to the science. What was that experience like?

James Fenton: Doug was a great guy. Of course, I didn’t call him Doug back then, but Dr. Bennion was a great guy. It actually turns out, when we were cleaning out his lab, I came across his stationary. Back in the days of the ’77, ’78, ’79 time frame, of course, everybody had their own private little stationary. So there was Doug Bennion’s, president of The Electrochemical Society, stacks of stationary that had probably never gotten used at that time. And we hadn’t quite switched into personal computers yet, but that’s why I found out that he actually was president, by cleaning out the lab, because he wasn’t the type that touted his own horn.

But, at the time, we were playing around with batteries a little bit because we thought nuclear energy would be so prevalent. We thought nuclear energy would be everywhere. It’s so cheap to meter that you were concerned about how you would store this extra electricity at night. So the whole idea, working on batteries and flow batteries back at that time in the ’70s, was driven by the fact we’d have all this free electricity around. And we wouldn’t use it at night, so we had to store it somewhere. So that’s where I got started in that idea of using the batteries back at that time. The other interesting thing that happened is that we, at that same time, decided that we were going to put emission control equipment on our automobiles. And so the first response is: where are we going to get all the platinum in the whole world to go ahead and get rid of all this organics that would come out of the tailpipes? And so, it was at that time when we were seeing these kinds of things.

So it was an interesting event because, at that time, everything was going to be electrical. We were going to have all this electricity. It was going to be free. And a self-respecting chemical engineer wouldn’t take electricity and turn it back into heat. You would use the electricity directly to carry out reactions. So at that time, I thought we were going to do all our organic synthesis by using all these free electrons running around to carry out synthesis. And that’s what led me to go to the University of Illinois and work with Richard Alkire.

RC: Working with Richard Alkire makes you part of the Charles Tobias academic family tree. Tobias, without question, is one of the most significant figures in ECS, but also the father of electrochemical engineering. And his family tree expands all over this organization, and all over the field that you’re in. Some fantastic scientists and engineers are now out there on the field doing what you’re doing, and it’s had a great impact on this organization. Can you just talk a little bit more about how your being a member of that family tree had an influence on you?

JF: The Society recently came out with some, what I called, baseball cards. But when I was young, that’s kind of the way I thought of that. So I’d just become a faculty member and Charles Tobias was going to give a talk at a symposium that I’d set up through The Electrochemical Society at the time. I thought that that was just like God was going to walk into the room later on. And then I remember, later on before his health got bad, he asked me to write a chapter in one of his books. And so I believe he was actually on oxygen at home. Every night, I’d get on the phone and he would spend about an hour and a half going through the written work that the student and I had done together. We fixed every grammar mistake, walking through this, passing lessons on.

So this was kind of the thing that that family tree had. It was more than just the academics and the subject matter. It was kind of family and you looked out for everybody. That’s the same kind of thing– when I came into the Society, I gave my first talk in 1982, actually, in Detroit, for and ECS meeting. And when I became part of, at the time, the Industrial Electrolytic Division, the bulk of the people in that division were 40, 50, 60 and they all worked for industry. And getting these young academics that worked in the room– it was like family. You got adopted by everybody. And so it was just that sort of nice environment like that.

RC: What have you been working on at the Florida Solar Energy Center?

JF: I arrived in 2005 time frame. We’re working in a lot of areas outside of just solar. So the solar thermal, that’d be hot water on your roofs, or the solar-to-electric testing and certifying those systems. But we did a lot of group work in energy-efficient buildings. That was pretty popular when hydrogen was really going well, and the Department of Energy was funding lots of fuel cell activities, too. So I transferred a big part of my program there. And then shortly after that, we actually led a Department of Energy, what was called the High Temperature Membrane Working Group to work on a membrane that would go into the fuel cell and the catalyst that would go with that electrochemical device and operated 120 degrees Celsius, which is the same radiator temperature that your internal combustion engine works at.

We did a lot of K-through-12 education. We did alternative fuels, and so that’s what that activity had done. And back at that time, we typically had about six major DOE programs. Now we probably have nine major DOE programs, adding onto PV manufacturing as part of the Sunshine Initiative. A lot of that involves electrochemical steps because photovoltaic is a semiconductor material. Maybe more on the dry side of the Society than a lot of the wet stuff that I had done before. But we’ve done a lot of works with the PV.

And then we recently, in the last several years, have had the nation’s only Department of Transportation Electric Vehicle Transportation Center, and while we’re not necessarily working on better batteries or better cars — there’s plenty of activity on that — we’re looking at the infrastructure for the charging and various things like that. Then maybe how you might be able to use the systems, whether it be a fuel cell-powered car or a battery-powered car, coupled with your house and the foldable tags that might be on the roof. You can put these things all together. So, a lot of the future, and it’s starting to happen now, is we’re breaking down these silos and energy efficiency solar batteries, PV, whatever, and bringing them all together and trying to integrate them. The society has basically all the membership that requires a lot of us to do that.

If you look at the technology, whether it be the batteries or the foldable tanks or the electrochemical supercapacitors and things along those lines, including the batteries and the vehicles. But then you have folks that are working on what we call more the dry side of things and so we’re really looking at some of the wide-bandgap semiconductor materials that are coming out because, in addition to moving bits and information around, you’re now have to moving high currents around. And some of the traditional semiconductor materials don’t lend themselves very well of that. So, these advances in wide-bandgap semiconductors then we’re going to do where we have switching gears that aren’t mechanical and move power around to integrate all these systems together. It’s been sort of exciting to get involved where I’ve had to break out my own just electrochemical fuel cell guide but put all these systems together at the same time, so it’s been challenging. And we still have 87 employees working at our place trying to make that happen.

RC: You talked about renewable energy sources as being cost-effective. But it seems that there’s a complaint and obstacle over the concern of the cost of renewable energy. Where does that come from?

JF: The average automobile today costs $31,000, but you can go into the car dealer and put no money down and make $200 a month and lease an automobile. As an American, you look at that and say, “Well, that’s no big deal. I can afford $200.” When you buy electricity out of the wall, you just pay a monthly bill and maybe it’s $100, maybe it’s $200. I can keep doing that. You’re going to go ahead and put solar on your roof like I did because now, it is indeed cost effective to do that. So I had to come down with $10,000. So a lot of this is the upfront cost. The upfront cost of these LED light bulbs, these upfront costs of these other things. Those electric vehicles cost too much. The interesting thing, though, whether it’s the lightbulbs, or it’s the electric vehicles, or it’s the solar, is their prices are dropping fast, faster than most people can appreciate.

So while everybody can remember what they paid for gasoline the first time they drove, and they can tell you where the cheapest price of gasoline is, but most people can’t tell you what electricity costs. And then you tell me I’ve got to buy this upfront thing. Well, but everybody goes out and buys a house and gets a 30-year mortgage or a 15-year mortgage. And why not buy it at the time of your mortgage and include it in your mortgage? And if the principal interest goes up because you bought something new with it less than the electricity bill goes down, you make money in the first month.

Our biggest problem, in some ways, is the financing and the hassle factors, not the technical innovations. Give me a guarantee that if I put six more inches of insulation up on my roof, that it will lower my electric bill. That’s a hard thing to do. But PV on my roof, I can give you the guarantee on the way that works. But those things are a little bit of a challenge. It’s a hassle to put insulation in your house. You’ve got to do construction kind of projects. We’re not geared up for some of these retrofit things. Putting PV on your house, a lot of people don’t have $10,000, so how do you deal with it spending $200 for a car? It’s not a problem whatsoever. So I think it’s some of these challenges that aren’t necessarily the technological ones.

Alternative energy will always be an alternative until it’s cheaper. It’s cheaper now. So the alternative is coal because it’s too expensive. That’s the reason. All that cheap energy that I thought we were going to have with nuclear, it’s too expensive. You’re not putting coal or nuclear power plants in today because the conventional natural gas plants are cheaper. Easily sighted, easily done with that. The real problem, in some cases with solar, is who makes the profit? So right now, a utility puts a solar power plant in, they tend to make their profit on the capital investment they make in the solar power plant. If you put solar on your roof, you make the profit, not the utility. That’s a big battle to be had.

We, as a country, have decided that electric utilities should sort of be socialistic monopolies and there’s a good reason for that. But it’s in their best interest for their shareholders to spend more money on capital investment. They don’t want you buying less electricity from them. So it’s a challenge but I think we’ll get through that and the technology and how long these things last.

The PV I put on my roof is 27 cents a gallon. So when you tell me $2 a gallon is cheap, I’ll tell you no it’s not. It’s eight times too expensive. It’s a perspective kind of thing. Yes, I had to go buy an electric car to do that, yes, I had to install it on my house. Yes, in my case, I came up with a lot of capital investments. But if you have money, I’d invest it back into your own house. It keeps the jobs local, all that.

RC: What role does the government have in this research and implementing this technology?

JF: There is a role for the government. So I happen to believe what I’d like to see happen would be individual companies that make products, real products, tangible things that have wealth associated with them and innovate and make those better. Then use the profits they make and invest those back into research dollars.

When I grew up in the ’70s, that was the time frame where all the chemical companies were coming around and innovating and doing things, not just getting oil out of the ground, but actually making chemical products, value-added things out of that. And we were doing a lot of that. So I thought that was a great reason to be a chemical engineer at the time. And then I got into electrochemistry during that for the reasons that we already discussed. But as that was going along, you had to then look also at putting fuel in your tank which is a liquid transportation fuel was set up as a competition, set up so companies to compete.

I could buy gasoline from anybody. You can get good prices on it. Somebody would make a better one and innovate with that. And so there was that kind of research activity. Because we set up the energy that was a form of electricity as a monopoly, much like we also did with the cell phone, we really wanted to bring them out in the middle of nowhere to get electricity and bring it out in the middle of nowhere to have a telephone. It was a good thing. It was a societal thing. But then, as a result, we sort of gave these monopolies out. So what’s the incentive for you to innovate and come up with a better technology to make the transmission of electricity there when your customers just show up because they plop into your neighborhood? It isn’t the business model there. So if the government was to tell me that we would set up free competition for electricity utilities, the government might own the wires, the government, the people own the roads, why the government own the wires? We the people kind of own the Internet too. Why can’t we own the wires? And then we have a bunch of people compete for making sure that the wires work right. And then we have everybody competing for adding electricity, including me competing to add electricity and everything. That’s real competition. That’s real fertile environment for innovation.

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