Spring 2013

PHYS 331/581: Fundamentals of Renewable Energy



Prerequisites: PHYS 262 or 266 or PI.  Please see me after the first class if you have not taken 266 or 262.  Graduate students enrolled in PHYS 581 can use it to satisfy either the MAIS concentration in energy & sustainability or one of the three electives for a MS in applied physics, but not the PhD in physics. 


Instructor: Prof. Robert Ehrlich, 301 C ST1

Office Hours: Mon, Wed 1:30 – 2:30 or by appointment


Course objectives: This course introduces students to the mathematical, physical, environmental  and economic principles of renewable and nonrenewable energy sources.  The objective is to give students enough information to allow them to understand the imperative for moving away from fossil fuels, to assess the relative merits of various renewable energy sources, to do calculations involving them, and to understand the factors in optimizing their design, application and locations.  Most importantly, the course will stress how to draw conclusions from various statistics & data concerning energy resources.  Students signed up for the graduate version of the course will be expected to master the material at a deeper quantitative level.


Course description: The course consists of an overview of the entire field of energy, presented with attention to the mathematical, physical and economic principles needed to assess the feasibility and desirability of each source.  It will also go into the most detail with respect to renewable sources, but there are also sections on nuclear power and fossil fuels.  The course assumes an understanding of basic physics, and it strives to address energy problems on a mathematical level at the level of first year calculus plus first order differential equations. 


Components of your Grade (see detailed descriptions for each category below)


25% Term project

25% Final Exam (in class)

20% Midterm Exam (take home)

20% Homework problems

5%   Class participation

5% Field trip


You are expected to observe the Honor Code on exams.  Note that PHYS 331 & 581 students will take common exams, except that the 581 students may have a few more challenging problem on both the mid-term & final.  If you are a student with a disability and you need academic accommodations, please see me and contact the Office of Disability Resources at 703/993-2474. All academic accommodations must be arranged through that office.


Academic integrity. GMU is an Honor Code university; please see the University Catalog for a full description of the code and the honor committee process. The principle of academic integrity is taken very seriously and violations are treated gravely. What does academic integrity mean in this course? Essentially this: when you are responsible for a task, you will perform that task. When you rely on someone else’s work in an aspect of the performance of that task, you will give full credit in the proper, accepted form. Another aspect of academic integrity is the free play of ideas. Vigorous discussion and debate are encouraged in this course, with the firm expectation that all aspects of the class will be conducted with civility and respect for differing ideas, perspectives, and traditions. When in doubt (of any kind) please ask for guidance and clarification.


Project.  This might be a collaborative effort with a group of no more than 2 students working on various aspects of it or alternatively separate projects for individual students.  The projects for students enrolled in the graduate version of this course are expected to be more in line with a small independent research project for a graduate student.  In particular, the amount and level of any data analysis should be at a reasonably sophisticated level.  Please see me if you are unsure which of the suggested topics for projects are suitable for graduate students.  I will need to approve your project by the end of the third week at the latest, but I will want to be assured that different people or groups are working on different projects, so it pays to discuss your idea with me earl, so that you get your first choice of project before it is taken by someone else.  Remember your proposed project must be submitted no later than Wed, Feb 6.  At that time it is also essential that you let me have an itemized accurate estimate of the cost of parts for your project so that you can get reimbursed (within reason).  Some possible projects are described here.  Please be sure to meet with me during the 6th and 10th weeks of the course, so I can monitor your progress.  The project must be completed by Wed April 24, when it will be on display to the Mason community.  If time permits, it will also be presented to the class during the last week of the semester.  A sample project report can be found here.


Textbook: The text for this course is written by me “Renewable Energy: A First Course,” published by Taylor and Francis, 2013.  Since the publication date is February 14, 2013, the book will be unavailable for a few weeks, but you can download chapter 1,  chapter 2,  chapter 3,  chapter 4 , chapter 5 & chapter 6 here.  In addition, detailed powerpoint notes of the lectures will also be posted on the course web site for each chapter, but they may be revised right up to the time of the lecture. 


Course schedule.  The exact schedule is subject to revision.   Apart from the dates of the exams, the rest of the schedule is only approximate.  .  Students must activate their GMU email accounts to receive important University information, including messages related to this class.


Chapter #, date and homework assigned are listed below with the homework problems shown in parenthesis.  They are due the week after the topic is covered.  Note that answers to even numbered problems are given at the back of the book.


1. Jan 28 Introduction (1,2,3)


2. Feb 4 Fossil Fuels (5,7,8)


3. Feb 11 Nuclear Science (4,6,10)


4. Feb 18 Nuclear Technology (9,11,14)


5. Feb 25 Biofuels (4,7,8)


6. March 4 Geothermal Power (2,4,9)


Spring recess: Mon Mar 11 – Fri Mar 15


Note re-ordering of chapters


Spring recess: Mon Mar 11 – Fri Mar 15


7. March 18 Solar Radiation and Climate (2,6,9)


8. March 25 Solar thermal Devices  (2,4,9)


Spring midterm exam here should be turned in by Wed 3/27 class.


9. April 1 Photovoltaic Solar Cells (3,5,10)


  (plus meetings with all students on their projects this week during office hours)


10. April 8 Wind Power (7,10,11)


11. April 15 Hydropower (7,12,14)


12. April 22 Energy conservation (2,6,8)

(April 22 is the absolute deadline for submitting projects.)


Saturday April 27 field trip – see details below


13. April 29 Energy storage & transmission  & Project Presentations (2,4,5)


April 24 project display  in the “Showcase” (at foot of Observatory tower) instead of class – come at 2:30 PM


14. May 6 (last class)  Energy and climate policy.


Final exam Mon, May 13,  1:30 – 4:15 Old final exam

Final will be on stuff since the mid-term;

it will include one EXCEL problem;

it will be open book & open notes;

you will have a choice of problems: 5 out of 7.



Field trip details. 


Zero energy Office buildings owned by the Stella Group in Arlington, VA -- 706 North Ivy Street – arrive 9:00


Please carpool & arrive no later than 9:00AM.  Allow about 30 min from Mason – see Google or Mapquest for directions.  My cell phone number is 703-963-9499.  If there are some persons who cannot attend the field trip, an alternative assignment will be arranged – see below.  Following the field trip you need to write a  review of the visit & what you learned.  


Alternative assignment.  For any student who is unable to attend a field trip, provisions will be made for an alternative assignment, involving design & construction of a renewable energy demonstration to be presented to the class.  You may not use “kits” for this purpose.  Please see me today to inform me if you know you cannot attend a field trip as scheduled.




Careers and Internships in the renewable energy field

Why an internship?  An internship, which is often pursued in your junior year – usually over the summer – can be a great entrée into well-paying career and it may even may help you land a job later with a particular company.  Green jobs” relating to renewable energy encompass many areas, including entrepreneurs, researchers, autoworkers making hybrid cars, building consultants, home energy auditors, solar panel installers, environmental studies and engineering professors, think tank policy experts, wind turbine engineers, lawyers for biofuel companies to name just a few.  Internships give you a much better understanding of what a field is like, and they give employers experience with your abilities before they make a long-term investment in you. 

What is available?  There are numerous internships available across the nation relating to renewable energy at universities, federally funded labs, non-profit organizations, private companies, and energy research centers. Some opportunities tend to be in scientific and engineering fields, but others are in policy areas. The ones at universities and research labs usually include a travel and housing allowance as well as a weekly stipend.  Thus, even if your funds are limited, you should consider applying for them even if they are in a different part of the country.  Among those opportunities at companies and non-profit organizations, some are paid, and some are unpaid.

When do I need to apply?  Deadlines vary, but the internships at universities tend to be competitive and often have deadlines early in January for internships for the following summer.  Probably doing one at the conclusion of your junior year is the best time to do it.

How do I get academic credit?  You need to follow these steps once you find an internship that you wish to take but before the beginning of the semester for which you want academic credit: 1) Check with the renewable energy coordinator (me) whether it is appropriate, 2) Print out this form,  3) Get the form signed by me and the department chair, 4) ring the form to the Registrar’s Office.

How to find them?  Internships at universities are often covered by a program known as “Research Experiences for Undergraduates,” abbreviated REU.  Thus, a good way to locate current opportunities relating to energy would be to do a google search on the pair of keywords REU and energy.  Another search on the keywords internships and energy will come up with a number of site that are more likely to be associated with private companies.  You might also try the search terms solar and internships.