Hopes Amid Hindrances

Opportunities for solar power impeded by economy

Just as the world's consensus on the need to pursue affordable, sustainable, "green" technologies to protect the Earth appears to be at a historic peak, the global economy is facing some of its most trying times.

Those converging factors give alumnus Kevin B. Smith (BSME '79), chief operating officer and head of development for SolarReserve, a solar power development company, a mix of hope and concern. He hopes for increasing progress in promoting solar-generated electricity worldwide, but he has real concern about the economic hindrances, such as the decline in available investment dollars, that stand in the way.

SolarReserve of Santa Monica, Calif., aspires to develop utility-scale renewable-energy solar power plants worldwide, using technology that can deliver power 24 hours per day, or as needed during peak periods of demand.

"One of the challenges," Smith says,"is finding opportunities that work from an economic standpoint, because solar is considered more expensive."

Smith bust

He points out, however, that his company is able to compete because the solar technology it offers provides cost predictability superior to any of the less Earth-friendly fossil fuel production methods. That predictability means lower long-term risk.

"You can build a solar project today and you can predict what your costs will be for the next 30 years. It really comes down to who's going to do the forecasting and what's going to happen to natural gas prices or other fuels over the next 30 years," he says. "We're also looking at a number of other ways to make the technology more competitive. And although we've seen a recent dip, most agree that oil and natural gas are continuing to rise."

Beyond that, Smith says that the United States could add millions of jobs to the economy by fostering sustainable power technologies, such as solar and wind.

"When you look at all the energy issues, job creation is a big factor. People are recognizing that there's more to energy supply than just raw cost; there is job creation."

EPA Decision a Boon for Solar

A recent decision by an appeals board of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added some balance to the economic playing field between fossil fuel-generated power and power from solar and wind technologies. On Nov. 13, 2008, the EPA panel blocked a permit for a proposed coal plant near Vernal, Utah, reversing an earlier EPA decision. The panel's ruling, which stated that the EPA needs to develop a single nationwide standard for limiting carbon dioxide emissions, has effectively stalled more than 100 other coal plant projects, which could drive away already limited investment dollars.

One of the 2008 Outstanding Mechanical Engineers, Smith obtained an MBA at the University of Chicago after earning his bachelor's degree at Purdue. He tackles the challenges of his work, confident that his Purdue education remains critical to his success.

"The mechanical engineering degree I received at Purdue gave me a great foundation. I studied power plant economics and design, and started out in a power plant design firm (Sargent and Lundy Engineers, Chicago).

As I was getting my MBA, my career went more into the commercial side, but fundamentally, you have to have a good understanding of the engineering, so you can understand fuel consumption."

-Amy Raley