Ryan Chartrand

With the global warming debate storming outside, one Cal Poly physics professor and a small group of students are working quietly within the confines of their labs to wean the outside world off of its reliance on fossil fuels.

Physics professor Pete Schwartz is leading several groups of students in projects involving fossil fuel research, solar energy technology development and electric vehicle technology research, all in the hopes of working toward more sustainable energy solutions.

Schwartz and physics senior Bob Lawson are working with the Fossil Free By ’33 campaign and the Community Environmental Council (CEC) to produce an energy blueprint that analyzes the feasibility of renewable energy sources for specific regions.

Their current data works with Santa Barbara County but they hope to produce a model that could be applied to San Luis Obispo or anywhere else.

“Ultimately, we would like anyone to be able to put in their own data,” Lawson said. “We’ll be making the model available to anyone that wants it.”

Their energy blueprint is part of the CEC’s larger project to map out specific steps that the entire tri-county region, which includes San Luis Obispo, needs to take to replace their energy needs with sustainable energy resources.

“There’s some urgency to this research, as the sooner we can work toward weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels, the less we will have to resort to less efficient and even more environmentally damaging petroleum sources,” Lawson added.

“There’s been an incredible amount of public interest in this,” Schwartz said. “Moving in the direction of renewable energy saves a lot of money and that’s always something everyone’s interested in.”

For Schwartz, there are many reasons to switch to renewables. “On one level we need to lower our environmental footprint on the Earth, and on another level you want people to have more efficient, cleaner, cheaper sources of energy.”

Also working with Schwartz are physics seniors Steve Rogers and Nik Glazar, who are investigating novel solar concentrator designs they say will help increase the efficiency of existing solar technology.

Their research into concentrator geometries would work to reduce the cost and complexity associated with tracking the sun’s motion.

“We’re hoping that these efforts will enable less expensive and more robust concentrated solar power systems,” Rogers said. “We envision our research enabling activities such as solar cooking, water purification and electricity generation.

“Recently, there has definitely been a huge increase in public awareness about sustainability. It makes sense especially as the price of gas and energy as a whole continues to rise.”

Schwartz provided some inspiration as the two started to think about their own energy usage. “One thing I admire about Pete is that he knows how all the pieces fit together,” Glazar said. “The guy rides his bike everywhere, he has a solar-powered shower . he lives his life according to the principles he teaches.”

Indeed, Schwartz said much of his commitment to renewable energy culminated when he starting building his own house in which he put many energy-saving features including an outdoor solar shower, a composting toilet and south-facing windows.

“That’s when I realized I was more excited about renewable energy development than nanotechnology,” he said.

Schwartz took a year-long sabbatical at Berkeley, where he worked with professors at that university and studied new areas of physics, renewable energy and energy policy. When he came back to Cal Poly, he started working with many of the students that are now involved with his renewable energy projects.

Physics seniors Matt Werber and Mike Fischer and electric engineering senior Jeremiah Johnson are working on research that studies the feasibility of producing a cost-efficient, high-performance electric vehicle using existing technology.

“Unless we can make an electric vehicle comparable in price and costs to a gas-powered vehicle, people aren’t interested,” Johnson said.

The group is working with electric car engineer John Dunning, one of the creators of the original EV-1 electric car produced during the 1990s. Since the EV-1’s emergence in (and quick disappearance from) the market, electric car technology has greatly improved, allowing for longer ranges, quicker recharge times and lighter batteries.

Still, some challenges are yet to be faced.

“Range and infrastructure are the two big issues right now,” Johnson said. “We need high amounts of current and specialized facilities for people to recharge their cars.”

“It’s going to take some level of personal sacrifice to make the switch over to electric but it’s not huge once the infrastructure is in place,” project partner Werber said.

The group hopes to complete their electric vehicle research by the end of the school year and submit it to Science Magazine and other top scientific publications.

“We want to produce a model that can be explained in almost layman’s terms,” Fischer said. “We want to prove to consumers that electric cars are feasible and affordable.”

But Johnson said that the biggest change is going to have to come from the consumers themselves – in the form of demand.

“And when does that come?” he asked. “At what point do people say enough is enough? Maybe when the price of gasoline hits $10 a gallon? Or when they start to look at the culmination of severe weather and natural disasters over the past decade.

“We’ve had record-breaking droughts, the tsunami in East Asia and then Hurricane Katrina. I think people just don’t want to accept what science tells us about global warming and fossil fuels because it’s going to mean they have to change how they live their lives.”

“It’s all physics,” Schwartz said. “Even people are subject to Newton’s laws of motion,” he said with a smile. “Inertia sets in and they don’t want to change.

He said part of the problem comes from the fact that America doesn’t see the big picture.

“Our administration has problems dealing with facts, especially scientific facts,” he said. “But the political left and the political right both lose if we’re wrong about global warming.”

Schwartz’s students say he has a unique way of thinking that lets him visualize the larger, systems-level connections between their smaller-scale projects.

“He’s found all these different ways to interconnect so that ultimately everyone relies on everyone else,” Glazar said. “We’re working on completely separate projects, but solar research depends on battery technology, which the electric car group is working with. Meanwhile, we would all ultimately like to see electric cars fueled by solar. It all comes together into some grand scheme.”

Schwartz says there’s no grand scheme that guides him. “The direction toward sustainability is my only purpose. I have some idea of how these projects fit together, but really it’s just important to me to see that these students are moving toward the goal of finding renewable energy alternatives.”

“Everything we strive for as physicists and engineers is greater energy efficiency,” Johnson said. “The great end result is that we save the planet along the way.”

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