Unsung Players in the Alt Energy Revolution

2 Oct

images-1A few weeks ago I posted about T. Boone Pickens, thinking out loud about his impact on the ongoing discussion about and investment in renewable energy.  Since then it struck me that Pickens represents a new breed of public figure: the renewable energy quasi-celebrity—people who show up on The Daily Show (as Pickens did), The Colbert Report (Shai Agassi, CEO of Better Place plug-in electric car company), The New Yorker (Elon Musk, Tesla Motors).

These relatively high profile types have become the face, so to speak, of renewable energy.

But, of course, there are countless others working on renewable energy technologies, policies, funding ventures, and so on.  These people are rarely recognized; they don’t show up on talk shows or high-end magazines.  But their work is crucial.

It’s part of my mission, in the book I’m writing, to shine the spotlight on some of these largely anonymous people whose individual contributions may seem small in the grand scheme of things, but who are an integral part of the movement toward a cleaner, more sustainable energy economy.

So I’d like to take a moment here to tell you about one of those folks: Indiana University physics professor Ben Brabson.  I met with Brabson last week at his office on the Bloomington campus—a spare, nondescript basement space filled with books, papers, chart, and more books.  A scholarly space.  I’d come with only a general understanding of Brabson’s work on wind energy and contributions to the IPCC’s most recent report on climate change.  But I had no idea about his personal story, how he came to devote his professional life to studying energy and environmental physics.  Here’s what I learned:

Brabson graduated from MIT in the mid 60s with a Ph.D. in high energy physics.  The atomic age was still relatively new, and quarks, gluons and atom smasher were all the rage.  (In many ways they still are in the world of experimental particle physics.) He got at job at IU and launched what he hoped would be a long, fruitful career as a high-energy physicist.

And for a few decades he did just that, publishing widely and becoming a prominent researcher.  But, as disciplines go, particle physics is one of the more esoteric.  While fascinating, the search for neutrinos and Higgs particles has little application in the everyday world.  And before long Brabson began desiring research projects that might mean something to people other than fellow particle physicists.

He found inspiration in the career of Art Rosenfeld, one of his teachers at MIT, who’d left high-energy physics for the less-celebrated, seemingly more mundane world of energy physics—that is, the study of how energy is created and used in the working world.  At the time, 1963, energy physics didn’t even exist as a recognized field.  Rosenfeld essentially invented it.  But since then he’s become a leading voice in the world of energy science and energy conservation.

Brabson decided to follow his former teachers footsteps.  In the late ‘70s he began teaching a course titled “Energy and Technology.”  Now, switching academic fields is no simple task.  It’s a very big deal, especially in the highly competitive arena of high-level physics.  So it took a while for Brabson to officially make the move—an entire decade, in fact.  But finally, in the mid ‘80s, he decided to leave particle physics and devote himself full time to energy physics, especially climate research.  In sabbatical spent at the University of East Anglia in the UK in the mid ‘90s helped Brabson sharpen his focus on wind, and since then he’s become a prominent researcher on extreme wind speeds and how they might affect the performance of wind turbines.

Alongside his academic work, Brabson is also active in Earth Care Bloomington, an interfaith group that works with congregations of all stripes in the Bloomington, IN area to educate their members about climate change and what we can do to curb global warming.

Brabson’s is a small story, all things considered.  His research isn’t celebrated by millions around the world.  (Although he was a consultant to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change).  He’s not on TV.  You’ve almost certainly not heard of Brabson until just now.

But Brabson’s story is important for a few reasons.  First, because he’s an example of a scientist working on climate change issues motivated by nothing more than learning as much as he can about how climate works and what’s in store for the planet as things warm up.  I’ve had too many arguments with people who claim that global warming is nothing more than a hoax perpetrated by liberal scientists who stand to profit by puffing up a theory that’s caught the public’s imagination.  Brabson got tenure decades ago.  He’s been retired for several years.  And when he made the switch to study climate change, he took a huge professional risk.  If anything, he stood to lose more than he could hope to reasonably gain.  If I could, I’d round up those who deny or ignore global warming and sit them down with Brabson for an hour.

And second, because while it’s certainly valuable to have prominent spokespeople talking about renewable energy in the media, it’s even more important that we have scientists and thinker like Brabson working steadily behind the scenes, doing the basic science that makes the more glamorous advances in wind, solar, biofuels and other renewable energy technologies possible.

I’d love to hear about other unsung people doing important work in renewable energy.  If you have a good story or tip, let me know: jnshere@gmail.com.

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