Nolan Browne believes in the future of the state’s clean-energy industry. As managing director of the nonprofit research group Fraunhofer CSE, he leads an organization that helps companies and governments develop the next generation of energy technologies. He recently spoke with reporter Casey Ross about the organization’s future in Boston.
Fraunhofer CSE is building new offices in Boston’s Innovation District. What do you hope to accomplish through the facility at 5 Channel Center?
At the highest level, what I’d like to achieve is a facility where we can advance the cause of building energy efficiency in this country and advance market adoption and deployment [of new technologies] nationally. We’re putting a lot of cutting-edge systems in the building that really haven’t been tried out yet. So instead of just having laboratories inside of the building, the building itself will be the laboratory. People will be able to see in real time and at full scale how these [clean-energy] technologies work.
What role do you see Fraunhofer CSE playing over the next 10 to 15 years in the state’s clean-energy industry?
I’m hoping we’ll be big. We have the opportunity to grow the research we’re doing in the building energy-efficiency areas, but also in our other research areas. We work in [solar panel] research and we have a group here called TechBridge, which is working with start-up companies out of the university system and other places and trying to jump-start them.
Why do you like the middleman role of doing research that helps companies commercialize their products?
We consider ourselves a fundamental part of an ecosystem. It’s really important to have somebody doing this work. We partner with universities, we exchange resources - professors, students, whatever - to foster innovation and market adoption and commercialization. In the process of doing this, we’re getting all those people trained up. All those university students who might have had a purely theoretical education, now are working on industrial projects. They are working on real market applications.
How fast is clean-energy technology moving as it relates to applications for homes and commercial buildings?
It’s moving substantially faster than it has in the past, but I want to throw a word of caution out there. Our perspective is that it’s going incredibly quickly because it’s in the news and people are talking about it, and there’s a certain amount of perceived progress just because people are talking. At the same time, these things take time. Change doesn’t happen just because people are more interested in it, or even because there’s more cash flowing into it.
How far away are we from seeing zero-net energy buildings - those that produce as much energy as they consume?
My feeling is the residential user is the easiest one to make net zero because you’re not manufacturing anything. You’re not doing research work. As soon as you start to get into these more commercial and industrial activities, it becomes very challenging to become net zero because you need a tremendous amount of energy. We know our building in South Boston is not going be a zero-net energy building because we have research activities that would consume far too much energy. Nonetheless . . . we have energy- efficiency goals for the building and we’re going to go for best practices and try to push the boundaries to save the energy.
Will the technologies incorporated into the South Boston building be applicable to residential properties, or is it solely focused on commercial buildings?
I think it’s going to be a little bit of both. There will be very sophisticated technologies that only work in a commercial setting, but about half or even more are basic things you would see in a residential home as well. It can be the type of walling material or insulation material you put in - pretty basic stuff. I think it will have very broad-reaching implications for the entire ecosystem here.