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Rising Stars: Tongdan Jin

Greening the Texas Grid

Emerging Technology, Emerging Talent

Energy is at the heart of the human situation in the 21st century, especially as the world faces the realities of climate change and energy shortages. Demand for professionals with sustainable energy knowledge is increasing as employers seek graduates who can better respond to energy challenges across diverse sectors.

Dr. Tongdan Jin, Texas State associate professor of engineering, is committed to produce more engineers and scientists who can develop new alternative energy sources and ways to increase sustainable energy. Dr. Jin leverages his expertise in photovoltaics and wind power systems to engage students in clean energy and green technology research. He answers questions about his current work.

What opportunities do you see for wind and solar power as strong emerging technologies in the United States?
Technically, wind power is ready to compete with the traditional power generating plants that are using coal, gas or nuclear. The goal for Texas and other states is to restructure the utilities market while ensuring the sustainability of the environment. Government has targeted utility companies to achieve 20 percent penetration from renewable energy, including wind and solar, over the next 20 years. What that means is that by 2030, when you turn on a light, 20 percent of your power will be provided by wind and solar. Today the number is only three to four percent in the United States.

What role will wind and solar play in Texas?
I am encouraged by the great potential that wind and solar offers for us in Texas. Currently, there are 26 million people across Texas who could benefit from wind and solar to power their basic home needs. If wind turbines in Texas were running at full capacity, everyone would have approximately 460 watts of power daily. That’s enough to power a large screen TV, a computer and several lights for one person every day of the year without conventionally generated power.

Consider these important facts. Texas leads the nation in wind energy production. With 200+ days of annual sunshine, Texas is among the top 10 in solar energy. I fully expect Texas to lead the nation to develop renewable energy using wind and solar. I am excited that my students are gaining valuable experience in emerging technologies and will play a leading role in shaping our daily lives with the clean energy that we need.

You and your students are working under a program called BGREEN. What exactly is BGREEN?
BGREEN stands for Building a Regional Energy and Education Network. It is a $3.2 million U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) grant shared between Texas State and three other universities: University of Texas at El Paso, Texas A&M - Kingsville and New Mexico State University. It is a four-year grant designed to increase educational and post-graduation opportunities for underrepresented students who want to pursue careers contributing to sustainable energy and agriculture research.

Why is the USDA funding BGREEN?
The USDA is creating a paradigm shift to help the younger generation see that agriculture is more than farming. It wants to revolutionize traditional agriculture by demonstrating that farmland can be more fully utilized by including renewable energy in the mix. For example, a farmer can lease his land and put wind turbines or solar panels on it. Or the land might even be well suited as a renewable resource for biomass, hydropower or geothermal energy.

How do the four universities participate in BGREEN?
Every partner in the BGREEN consortium plays an important role in shaping a vision of a more sustainable energy future and the education means to achieve it. The breath and diversity of the faculty that are available across the four partner institutions provide unique opportunities for students to engage in interdisciplinary sustainable energy education and cutting-edge research. Each university has specific research areas as their focus.

How is BGREEN organized at Texas State University?
At Texas State, our portion of the four-year grant totals $480,000 to support undergraduate students to advance their education in the fields of renewable energy and energy efficiency. We created a multi-disciplinary program across engineering, chemistry and agriculture with three faculty members serving as co-principal investigators under the grant. Our students are exposed to renewable energy integration including wind and solar as well as converting biomass to valuable products and energy storage.

How do students become a part of BGREEN at Texas State University?
Each faculty member leverages his expertise to develop his own research thread and determines the number of undergraduate students to utilize in research projects. Students submit resumes to be considered in these coveted paid research assistant roles. Now in its third year at Texas State, BGREEN has supported over 30 students, of which 70 percent have been Hispanic and minorities. Students with promising energy solutions have presented their papers to national and international conferences, published articles in academic journals and pursued competitive internships with the USDA. Since our long-term goal is to train the next generation of engineers and scientists, we encourage our BGREEN students to continue their education in a graduate program.

As you train tomorrow’s green energy leaders, what is your vision for their contributions to a sustainable, low carbon future?
Natural resources, such as coal, gas and oil, ultimately will be depleted. As a result, our students feel a sense of urgency about the importance of emerging technologies. They are driven to learn, explore and find clean and green solutions that will sustain the development of the world as well as create new job opportunities. In terms of their ideas and what they will come up with, I can say with confidence that the sky is the limit. I expect to see some of our BGREEN students go on to develop energy applications that will impact our lives in positive ways that we can’t even begin to imagine.