The solar panels on his house in Dix Hills help provide about a third of the energy he and his family use. When he drives around Long Island and sees plumes of smoke from power plants, he looks to see where it’s heading.
Energy and environmental conservation aren’t just hobbies or personal philosophies — they are part of what Vasilis Fthenakis teaches as a senior scientist at Brookhaven National Laboratory and an adjunct professor at Columbia University.
Fthenakis helped improve the environmental impact of solar cells, working several years ago to eliminate lead, which can be dangerous to humans and to the environment, from the manufacture of solar panels. He has helped guide the industry to minimize the environmental, health and safety risks of solar cells.
Fthenakis recently returned from a trip to Chile, where he is encouraging the use of solar panels in a country that is often bathed in sunlight. “It’s the best place in the world for solar,” he said. It rarely rains and most of the land that is available for installation is up on high altitudes, he said.
Fthenakis, who was born and raised in Greece, has worked for about a year with several Chilean organizations to discuss the benefits and realities of solar energy.
Chile now imports coal, natural gas and diesel fuel. If the country produced its own energy, it could cut its energy costs, he said. It could take up to five years to see significant effects on the national economy, he estimated.
The South American nation has been ramping up its solar efforts. A few years ago, Chile generated no power from sunlight. That rose to 10 megawatts in 2012, 189 megawatts in August last year and currently stands at about 500 megawatts.
“We’re talking about tremendous growth,” Fthenakis said. Chile has a plan to boost renewable energy, which includes solar, wind and some hydroelectric plants, to 12 percent by 2020 and 20 percent by 2025. Fthenakis believes solar will be the biggest constituent in the mix.
While Chile doesn’t have the same oil, gas, coal and nuclear lobbies as the United States does, it does present some challenges to boosting solar energy, including inertia, Fthenakis said. “Most people don’t want to change,” he added, including people in other countries around the world.
In 2008, Fthenakis and two other authors wrote a cover story for Scientific American, titled “A Solar Grand Plan,” about the benefits and reliability of solar energy. At the time, solar was contributing 0.1 percent of energy to the capacity in the U.S. That number has climbed to 2 percent.
The article was translated into 11 languages and has raised his profile around the world. He has also traveled to Abu Dhabi to discuss the feasibility of tapping into the sun-driven renewable resource. As with Chile, these interactions have developed through a combination of approaches from other countries and an interest on Fthenakis’ part.
In addition to his work at BNL, Fthenakis teaches two environmental courses at Columbia: Air Pollution Prevention and Control, and Photovoltaics Systems Engineering and Sustainability.
As for his research at BNL, Fthenakis said he is involved in all aspects and impacts in evaluating energy alternatives. That can include affordability, which addresses direct and hidden costs, resource availability and environmental impact.
Fthenakis has been working at BNL for 34 years, where he has earned the respect of his colleagues. He is “a world-renowned expert in issues of safety of photovoltaic systems and, more broadly, in issues of deployment, efficiency, practicality and the like,” said Stephen Schwartz, a senior scientist in the Biological, Environmental & Climate Sciences Department at BNL, who has known Fthenakis for about 20 years.
Fthenakis’ wife, Christina, is an executive director in research and development at Estée Lauder Companies. The couple have a daughter, Antonia, who is doing her residency in dermatology at Stony Brook and a 21-year-old son Michael who is exploring his career options.
Fthenakis said he and his family visit beaches on Long Island or wherever they travel. When they find litter, they help dispose of it in a safe place.
“Solar energy and the environment defines the way I live,” Fthenakis said.