Solar Ecology: Exploring the Grand Challenges in Solar Energy icon

Chair: Jeffrey R. S. Brownson


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The future of solar energy’s rapid expansion ties directly to our ability to rapidly build human capacity and lower barriers to entry at all levels of education. Solar energy represents systems-based research and education. Because we as a nation are rebuilding our solar knowledge and local vernacular for solar design from a very low capacity (as of 2005), and because Penn State developed its solar presence much earlier than other institutions through two Solar Decathlons and multiple education and outreach programs, it should interest you that Penn State is a national and international leader in solar energy research and education. Through this leadership, we now seek to redefine the grand challenges in solar energy for the next 20 years. This next era of solar will be so much more diverse than photovoltaics alone, leading to new services that we have yet to imagine, much like we could not quite imagine the diverse services of social networks, weather, banking, and email from a “phone” back in 1999. There is a big systems field emerging for solar within the context of the environment, society and technology, connecting solar science with design, business, art, lifestyle, health, and well-being. We are calling that encompassing systems field solar ecology.

On December 4th, we will hold our interdisciplinary workshop “Solar Ecology: Grand Challenges in Solar Energy” among PSU faculty and solar participants in the community (Organizer: Dr. Jeffrey Brownson). The event will address the broad scope of solar in the wake of major changes occurring for solar photovoltaics, and to identify grand challenges in solar energy. The event will call upon participants to look beyond their current awareness of solar energy as a singular technology called photovoltaics, and to explore solar energy as a new school of thought, called solar ecology, bridging across the sciences, arts, and among the fields of design. The solar ecology workshop will be hosted at the College of EMS Energy Institute on the University Park campus.

The nexus of energy-water-food systems presents an ecology, a study of the “home”. When we explore the patterns of interactions among the Sun’s light, and the all of the goods and activities derived from sunlight, we are exploring solar ecology. Solar energy has influence on water, land use, ecosystems services, food systems, and social systems; demonstrating how the solar ecology framework will contribute to a shared new wave of coupled discoveries and social change. Solar ecology is an interactive systems framework within the context of the environment, society and technology—affecting water and food systems coupled to local seasonal weather regimes. Our interdisciplinary team has been engaging nearly 50 Penn State faculty members to explore and develop a programmatic approach to solar ecology. Collaborators with the Penn State Solar Ecology Team include researchers in the fields of economics, energy engineering, geography, law, meteorology and rural sociology.