Mechanical Engineering PhD Focuses on Renewable Energy Research, Solutions to Global Warming

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Chuck Kutscher

Mechanical Engineering

In his 28 years at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colorado, Charles Kutscher (PhD MechEngr '92) has cultivated a passion for alternative energy. His groundbreaking doctoral thesis on transpired solar collectors in collaboration with Conserval Systems, Inc. won an R&D 100 Award and a Popular Science "Best of What's New" award in 1994. Transpired air collectors are dark, perforated metal plates that are installed over a building's south-facing wall to capture the sun's heat to warm the building ventilation air.

Kutscher also has published extensively, served as a public speaker and distinguished lecturer, and chaired the CU-Boulder Department of Mechanical Engineering Industry Advisory Council as well as the American Solar Energy Society (ASES).

Today, as the principal engineer/group manager for NREL's Thermal Systems Group, he manages a dozen engineers and interns, directing in-house research related to concentrating solar power, solar heating, and geothermal power. In addition, Kutscher has led an ASES effort to raise public awareness about the serious dilemma of global warming and to offer practical energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions that can effectively reduce U.S. carbon emissions over the next two decades.

"The United States is blessed with incredible renewable energy resources," says Kutscher, "and when you combine these with energy efficiency, they can provide most, if not all, of the carbon reductions that will be needed in the United States. And these technologies can begin to be deployed on a large scale today."

As general chair of the ASES SOLAR 2006 national conference in Denver, which had the theme "Renewable Energy: Key to Climate Recovery," Kutscher invited some of the foremost climate scientists in the world to speak, including James Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies, Warren Washington of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and Robert Socolow of Princeton University. Each presented evidence as to the seriousness of global warming and set the stage for presentations on energy efficiency and renewable energy solutions to the problem of climate change.

"I wanted to bring in climate change experts to show the renewable energy community how serious this problem is," Kutscher says. "We are already experiencing significant damage from global warming, but we can still avoid the worst consequences if we act now. So we set up the conference to say, here's the problem and here are the solutions."

In January 2007, ASES followed up with Tackling Climate Change in the U.S., a landmark report edited by Kutscher with scientific studies that elaborate on the energy efficiency and renewable energy presentations from the conference. The report shows how the immediate application of efficiency and renewable energy technologies can help limit the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide to 450 to 500 parts per million—the target set by many climate change experts. Fifty-seven percent of the reductions detailed in the report fall under improved energy efficiency, with wind power, geothermal energy, biomass, concentrating solar power, photovoltaics, and biofuels providing the rest. A map included with the report (pictured at right) shows how these technologies could be distributed throughout the United States in 2030.

In recognition of his long-standing contributions to active solar energy systems and thermal technologies, ASES gave Kutscher the 2006 Charles Greeley Abbot Award, an honor he attributed to the talented solar research teams he has worked on at NREL over the years.

In addition to his many professional activities and achievements, Kutscher has maintained a strong involvement in the educational community. He helped to create and teach a class called Global Engineering in the mechanical engineering department at CU-Boulder, and he has taught laboratory classes at the Colorado School of Mines. He also gives frequent lectures on renewable energy and climate change.

"We don't have a choice. We've got to solve this problem. When I hear people talk about things like foreign oil dependence and energy security, none of these things threaten us more than global climate change," he says. "If we solve global warming, we solve these other problems. I'd like to see CU and other universities recognize how serious the climate change crisis is and how important it is for our scientists and engineers to help develop and deploy carbon-free energy sources."

The complete text of the Tackling Climate Change in the U.S. report is available at the ASES website.

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