The year 2016 is rapidly approaching, along with the conclusion of Harvard’s science-based goal to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 30% from 2006 levels. In addition to general energy reduction and efficiency efforts in our buildings, we must begin to think about the sustainable energy alternatives that are starting to play a large role as we move away from fossil fuels. 

In this addition to the Greenpreneur series, Dr. Jacquie Ashmore, PhD '03 and a Harvard Renewable Energy Professional in Residence through the Office for Career Services, shares some of her thoughts about recent developments in solar technologies at the Fraunhofer USA Center for Sustainable Energy Systems where she works, her graduate studies and how they contributed to her current work in sustainable energy, as well as some advice to students interested in careers in environment and renewable energy. Jacquie will also be speaking on these topics at Harvard’s Office of Career Services on November 12 and at the Harvard College Women's Center "Women in Innovation" Dialogue Series on November 12. 

Victoria Elliott: Great to meet you, Jacquie! What led you to a career in sustainable energy and solar technology?

Jacquie Ashmore: I can still recall seeing a plot of global average temperature over the last 1,000 years in about 2006—the so-called “hockey stick curve” with a sharp upward curve at the end—and it galvanized me. The data pointed to an immediate and profound challenge, and I wanted to use my scientific expertise to be part of the solution. My specialized knowledge and experience did not relate clearly to energy and environment issues at that time, but I found a new job that enabled me to transition into the field.

My specialized knowledge and experience did not relate clearly to energy and environment issues at that time, but I found a new job that enabled me to transition into the field.

My focus on solar came more recently, almost two years ago when I started work with Fraunhofer Center for Sustainable Energy Systems. I came across a fantastic solar system development project (“Plug and Play PV”) that needed someone with my skill set, so I jumped right in. More on that below.

VE: I can relate, climate change statistics were an enormous motivator for me as well. What does your job at the Fraunhofer Center involve?

JA: Fraunhofer CSE does contract research and development on solar technologies, grid integration, and building energy efficiency. A lot of my work is externally facing, engaging with our customers or potential customers, identifying how we best serve their needs and defining new projects. I also work on project execution, supporting the experts we have in the PV (solar) team and collaborating closely with other teams within Fraunhofer CSE.

VE: What projects are you currently working on?

JA: The biggest project I work on is Plug and Play PV—aiming to dramatically reduce the costs of installing residential PV, since there are very limited opportunities to reduce hardware costs. We are targeting $1.50/Watt installed cost by 2020, down from an average of $4/W installed cost in the U.S. today. The vision of the project is to make PV systems similar to an appliance—installed quickly, easily, and safely, even by someone with no prior PV installation experience. We have demonstrated prototype systems and are now working on the adoption and commercialization, which is really exciting.

The vision of the project is to make PV systems similar to an appliance—installed quickly, easily, and safely, even by someone with no prior PV installation experience.

 

VE: That sounds like a really fascinating and innovative project! So, how do your graduate studies in the mathematical modeling of fluids play into projects like this?

JA: In general, what is most useful from my graduate studies is my ability and my confidence in learning new technical ideas. However, the mathematical modeling problems I studied for my PhD are very relevant for a new lightweight module we are working with which—instead of being attached several inches above the rooftop using a rack as a conventional module is—is adhered, leaving a very small gap between the module and rooftop. The airflow between the module and the rooftop is important in understanding wind resistance and also power generation, and my thesis research is very applicable.

What is most useful from my graduate studies is my ability and my confidence in learning new technical ideas.

VE: On that note, what was your PhD experience at Harvard like and how has it influenced your current work?

JA: My PhD advisor Professor Howard Stone was intellectually curious in a very broad way and that rubbed off on me; I find myself drawn to multidisciplinary problems. I am also very grateful for Professor Stone’s efforts to ensure his students were not only excellent researchers but were also effective communicators. He taught me a tremendous amount about clear writing and how to give a good talk, which has been incredibly useful. 

I am also very grateful for Professor Stone’s efforts to ensure his students were not only excellent researchers but were also effective communicators.

VE: Does your current work involve a lot of policy and do you think experience with environmental policy is crucial for what you do at the Fraunhofer Center?

JA: My policy background is very helpful to me since my work on the Plug and Play PV project involves a lot of stakeholder engagement with utilities, municipalities, etc. who are important stakeholders in adopting new types of PV system. However it’s definitely not generally necessary to have a policy background to work at Fraunhofer CSE: I was recruited for a somewhat unusual role and many of my colleagues at Fraunhofer CSE have a purely technical background.

VE: What advice do you have any advice for students pursuing studies and careers in environment, sustainability, and energy?

JA: I want people—especially younger people—to be bold and tireless in reaching for new solutions to address our climate and energy challenges. Take risks, since we need to change the status quo dramatically and fast; we need to take the path less trodden. With innovative approaches and perseverance, we can build a sustainable future for our planet.

I want people—especially younger people—to be bold and tireless in reaching for new solutions to address our climate and energy challenges.