Varun Rai

The Department of Energy has given a roughly $500,000 grant to a UT research project that hopes to shed light on solar and non-solar energy use in Texas, with particular attention to what gets consumers amped up.

Led by Varun Rai, an assistant professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, the project will combine data and survey results with the goal of establishing more efficient solar power systems. 

Texas is one of the best areas in the U.S. to harvest solar power, according to Rai. He said the project will examine what obstacles prevent its use, particularly in residential areas. Rai also said he hopes the data will result in the development of more solar technologies, such as systems to power homes and electric vehicles.

“Through a robust research design combining behavioral economics, diffusion of innovations and advanced data analytics, this project seeks to support the overarching objective of making renewable energy, and solar in particular, more affordable and widespread,” Rai said.

Many solar power systems run rebate programs, according to Eric Bickel, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UT who is assisting with the project. Because solar power is now much cheaper than it was 40 or 50 years ago, when it was first invented, this project will investigate how to make solar energy more widespread. Similar grants were also awarded to MIT, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Yale University as part of the department’s SunShot Initiative.

Ben Sigrin, a public affairs and energy and earth resources graduate student working on the project, said the project comes at a time when solar energy is at a crossroads. 

“The prices have fallen so quickly over the last few years that we’re now at a point where solar could actually become mainstream,” Sigrin said. “Our research helps understand why consumers adopt solar and ways to accelerate that adoption process.”

Scott Robinson, public affairs and energy and earth resources graduate student, is designing a “computer simulation of the residential solar market in Austin” with hopes of simulating consumer behavior as a part of the research project.

“I am using agent-based modeling to solve this problem,” Robinson said. “Instead of using an algorithm to describe the process as a whole, I model the behavior of individuals, and allow them to interact within their geographic environment.” 

This project has been a dream come true from a student’s perspective, Robinson said.

“To be honest, this project is the most interesting problem I have ever tried to solve,” Robinson said. “It has made me search out an entire new skill set in an applied environment. In other words, this is what learning should be.”

With a campus as large as UT’s, it is easy for graduate and undergraduate students to become disconnected from one another.

Assistant public affairs professor Varun Rai said UT’s Energy Institute started the UT Energy Symposium in 2011 in an effort to bridge that gap by putting graduate and undergraduate students in the same space. The symposium brings speakers to campus throughout the semester and held its second one-week Student Research Showcase Thursday. The showcase featured four graduate students and their research on different aspects of energy resources. The goal is to get both sets of students to interact with each other.

“We try to make that interaction possible,” Rai said. “We have done three semesters of it and have had 30 speakers so far,”

The symposium is also available as a course. Students who register for it receive one credit-hour for the 15-week program, according to the symposium’s website.

Rai said he believes the showcase has been rewarding for the students who have attended.

Civil engineering graduate student Ashlynn Stillwell, who spoke about the effects of water on thermoelectric generation, said it was a great way to kick off the semester for the symposium.

“It is nice to talk about student research and then have professionals and experts throughout the semester,” Stillwell said. “That way you can touch on what is happening here and around the state and country.”

Stillwell said she hopes undergraduates hearing her and the other students become inspired to think about the issues their research brings up.

“In order to have sustainable solutions for generations to come, we have to think outside the box,” Stillwell said. “That takes young, fresh minds, or minds that have not been engraved in it for five, 10, 15 years, to bring new energy to the energy sector.”

Still new to the symposium series, Rai said they tried to get the word out about the showcase as much as possible this year, including sending out e-mails and running advertisements in The Daily Texan.

Freshman Oscar Escajeda said he received one of those e-mails from a graduate student he knows and decided to check it out.

“I’m really interested in energy,” Escajeda said. “I think that solving energy problems is ultimately going to solve the world’s problems.”

After hearing the four graduate students speak, Escajeda said it made him want to do the same when he is a graduate student.

“In a couple of years, hopefully I am up here talking to everyone,” Escajeda said.

Rai said that the event was videotaped and would be put on the Energy Institute website in two to four days.