BY JULIA RUSSO// Scott Sklar is a sustainable energy professor at the George Washington University that not only teaches his students about renewable energy and critical infrastructure, but has also implemented all of these technologies in his own life.
Sklar began his career in energy, when he was working in the 1970s in the US Senate and was a military aid to Senator Javitson. After the oil embargo in 1974, when 3% was withheld by the cartel in the Middle East, Americans had to deal with long gasoline lines and dramatically increasing prices.
In order to combat this issue, Javitson called in Sklar to become his energy advisor despite Sklar mentioning to me that he “knew nothing about energy”. However, Sklar began learning quickly and created a bi-partisan solar caucus on Capitol Hill that promotes renewable energy and energy efficiency.
After nine years working with the Senate, Sklar decided to work for a small national laboratory called the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT) and worked on international, renewable energy projects.
Working for the NCAT “started moving [Sklar’s] thinking” and around this time President Reagan came into office and began trying “to take solar off the White House”.
This resulted in Sklar being recruited by the big nine environmental groups at the time and they created an organization called the Solar Lobby, which he “lobbied as an advocate for the environmental and clean energy community for two years”.
At this same time the solar industry set up a trade group where he served as the political director for a year and then the executive director for the following 14 years.
His next career pivot involved creating his own company known as The Stella Group. The company “blends all these clean energy technologies, high value energy efficiency, all renewables, energy storage, for commercial industrial institutional infrastructure.” Sklar works with a lot of “third world countries, military bases, and industrial parks.”
Sklar realized he “ didn’t want to be viewed that I was just telling people what to do and I didn’t do it myself.” So he began implementing the technologies he used at work, in his house and office.
Currently, his house and office are powered by multiple different renewable energy technologies- including solar water heating, solar electric roofing shingles, wind turbines, a hydrogen fuel cell battery, solar daylight tubes, and a geothermal heat pump.
“And it's actually very powerful when you are sitting with a company and say ‘well, I have used this technology in my office building or my home and this is what I like about it.’ And I am honest and say this is also what I don’t like about it. And they really respect that. And it's a good feeling...I do at least one tour a week, if not two. And most of them are engineers and architects and professors’ students, government officials from around the world coming through because how do we expect people to change how they use technology if they have never seen the technologies you changed to,” Sklar said.
By looking at Sklar’s property, one may be overwhelmed or intimidated by all of the technology. They may begin asking themselves - “I can’t afford to install of this! I would never know how to work any of this technology!” However, Sklar’s intention is not to discourage people from switching to renewable energy since they think they can’t perfectly replicate his renewable energy system, rather he notes that all of the changes he made towards moving off-the-grid came slowly and that it is truly accessible to everyone.
“The whole point is that I want people to see this as not a big leap, you know we use new technology all the time. We keep doing it, from smart thermostats you can control with an app on your smartphone, and LED lights with your app on your cell phone, what’s the real difference except this stuff saves a lot of energy and why wouldn’t you want to do that. It saves money,” Sklar said.
Sklar even mentioned that for people who are unable to make personal changes they should look into joining a solar buyer co-op. He mentioned that it is a great opportunity for cities to offer as it combats the issue of people being unmotivated or lacking the time to make switches to renewable energy source.
Additionally, Sklar’s property has provided country officials with examples of technology they can realistically implement. For example, Sklar gave the former environmental administrator of Mexico a tour of his house and office buildings, and the administrator told Sklar a story that perfectly encapsulated the accessibility of his set-up.
The administrator said to Sklar, “a year before I was in California doing a tour and I toured this movie stars $20 million home and their $8 million solar system and I said you know it was very impressive but it had no impact to my country and here I am with you in an average suburban house and using technology that is absolutely in the marketplace and it’s cost effective and reliable and it has an immense impact on me.”
Hearing this story reminded me of the common argument that transitioning the world to renewable energy will disadvantage the poor; however, after discussing this with Sklar it seems that renewable energy sources are actually safer, cleaner, and cheaper.
“There are 7.4 billion people on the planet and 1.6 billion have no electricity. 1.8 billion people have electricity less than 10 hours a day, usually at night when they need it the most. So a good half of the world is getting their lighting from kerosene. Then they charge there cell phones by spending 20 minutes twice a week per phone in front of a diesel engine to charge up their phone, that's how they survive,” Sklar said.
In order to combat this issue, Sklar is worth lots of different companies around the world to create a system that includes a Solar PV, battery, and LED light bulbs. The solar panels are made out of aluminum and they can hang on hooks on the south side of a hut, which allows people to bring them in at night so it isn’t stolen. It is capable of powering 8 AA rechargeable batteries and 4 LED lights. People are able to lease purchase it over 18 months and they pay 30% less a month than kerosene.
Sklar then began talking about his hopes for the University in terms of energy sourcing; although he is proud that the University has “a sustainability plan, solar at the Virginia campus, solar water heating at the Washington DC campus” he would like the transition to renewable energy sources to go a little further.
“I would like to see something on every damn building. I’d like to see it on the infrastructure on all the campuses, Foxhall, out in Virginia, and in DC. Everything from running street lights, to the park and quad lights, solar lighting and little wind turbines. That way we don't have to use diesel engines, which are very expensive and polluting. So we need to start slowly integrating these technologies in the day to day fabric of the university,” Sklar said.
Moving forward, Sklar suggests that “we can not expect big business, that has trillions of dollars tied up in fossil fuels, say we do not want to make money [and thus support the transition to renewable energy] I mean they are greedy, they finance the political system, they are one of the richest industries in the world so the actions by students around the world and scientists are extremely important to motivate people. I actually have a lot of faith that people when giving the information will make the right decision.”
He mentioned that a common suggestion to reduce one’s footprint is to stop flying on planes; however, Sklar note that that “there is business to be done and family emergencies to be done” so when people are not able to do this they feel helpless. But Sklar suggested that we look at the big picture. Planes contribute to 6% of our emissions; however, energy generation contributes to 35% which is easily combatted by switching to renewable energy generation.
“Focus on the things that really matter, that institutions and regulatory systems can handle, and stop badgering individuals that are trying to raise families and work and go to school and a lot of poor people that can't make decisions. And look at the big picture and make that happen and once you do the four or five of the big things the rest of it sort of happens on its own,” Sklar said.
After speaking with Sklar, I realized the impact that one person’s actions can have on the larger global community. Sklar serves as a source of information as well as inspiration for me. I think by learning from his actions, the GW community could learn how to better engage with sustainability technology on campus and how to make changes in their personal lives to reduce their impact on the environment.