Appalachian Perspective: John Pine and the Research Institute for Environment, Energy and Economics

Hosted by Appalachian State University's Chancellor Kenneth E. Peacock, Appalachian Perspective cable television program has featured prominent and interesting North Carolinians, the university's leading academic and public service programs, and other topics of statewide interest. Episodes air across the state on cable operators' community access channels. The 30-minute program is a production of the university's Office of University Communications.

For many years Appalachian State University has been a leader in renewable energy and environmental research. A new institute on campus is now expanding the university's outreach as well as its ability to partner with business and industry in other institutions to find workable solutions. With me to discuss this new endeavor is John Pine, director of Appalachian's Research Institute for Environment, Energy, and Economics.


Dr. Kenneth E. Peacock: Our nation and world face complicated energy needs. For many years Appalachian State University has been a leader in renewable energy and environmental research. A new institute on campus is now expanding the universitie's outreach as well as it's ability to partner with business and industry in other institutions to find workable solutions. With me to discuss this new endeavor is John Pine, director of Appalachian's research institute for environment, energy, and economics. Welcome John.

Dr. John Pine: Thank you, I appreciate the invitation, Chancellor Peacock.

KP: It's nice to have you on the program today. And John, you came to Appalachian in January, so not very long ago to lead the research institute for environment, energy, and economics, so tell us about that institute and what plans you see for that.

JP: Well thank you. Well this is a new effort, but its been in place for years, it's been in the works for years. The board adopted and approved the institute formation in November of this past year, but it exists in many forms prior to that, you had an energy center and there was an economics center that were in place when the proposal was made to the board. The university has a long history of environmental research and particulartly with energy, and so the energy center in places had many staff and many projects. It was formed in 2001, and today is involved with the state energy office and many pther projects that we can talk about. The other was the econ center which is paert of the biusiness school. And it was formed in 2004, following a conference where a proposal for the center was made and so the institute has one more leg that it will have. And it will deal with the environment, the Southern Appalachian environmental center, and we can talk more about that type of thing. So in a sense the institute has some existing components that are built on the traditions of Appalachian State University and in the weeks that i've been here it's been an absolute pleasure to meet with faculty to find out more of what they've been doing how this tradition evolved and what their expectations are, and my hope is that the institute will be able to pull together the many other components of environmental energy and economics research that are on the campus and outreach and pull this together to make this as a whole component.

KP: You mentioned Appalachian's history in terms of being involved with environmental research. you were not here 20 years ago when we had the windmill, now called a wind turbine up on howard's knob, but that was sort of a beginning point for Appalachian State University, and under the leadership of Dr. neal linebeck there was a greenhouse gas study funded by the EPA, and other things from that so we go back quite a ways with this. Are there other things that you have seen in Appalachian's history that say this is the right thing for us to be doing at this point?

JP: and those were strategic moves, now we have a wind farm, it's a 5 acre piece of land on high ground in banner elk, and it provides an area where you can try out new technologies for wind energy. beyond the wind energy, there's been the whole notion of energy efficiency, so building technology evolved from our technology department an academic program that has grown and changed over the last 20 to 25 years and so the energy center in it's emphasis on building smart and wind energy and solar energy, so renewable energy has been a theme for some time. So without the department of technology and the faculty involvement of energy efficiency, you would not have what you have today, a broad based group that is working with state government, they've worked with the energy office, assisted with legislative elements, they have an energy code that they have adopted that is a model one for local governments. So you have many different components it's not just technology, it's coming up with guidelines for cities to consider development and growth as well as technology and how can we use these in large scales and small scale kind of components. So the energy center and the interest in the environment has evolved over many many years at appalachian state and it's not a brand new component and that's the beauty of it that you have units from throughout the campus that can do this and so you have a tradition of working with outside partners and with businesses and government leaders at the federal, state, and local levels and it provides a wonderful base to then come in and pull together the pieces and try to figure out new ways to offer our research to the campus.

KP: Recently i've been reading a book by Thomas Freedman, Hot, Flat and Crowded, Mr. Freedman wrote that the world is flat, and it makes you stop and think a whole lot in this, but in reading the book, i'm very proud that Appalachian has taken the initiative and we now have this center on campus because he writes in the early part of the book "the task of creating the tools, systems, energy sources and ethics that will allow the planet to grow in cleaner, more sustainable ways is going to be the biggest challenge of our lifetime." How is this center addressing this, are we really making a difference here?

JP: Well, what you've just said is that the environment and energy and our economy are all linked. They're completely interdependent. We see today that when energy prices rise or fall, it has a tremendous social impact, it pushes us to conserve, we look for renewable energies, we see the climate change, and then we see the social impacts this is having on us and of course the economic impacts are looking at this. So the structure of the institute, I am grateful for the faculty and your administration for pulling together 3 such diverse systems. In a natural environmental system, a social-cultural system, the energy and the emphasis on renewable systems and clean technologies, and the economy because it offers the university a way to bring in all elements of your campus into a whole. The research from different schools and colleges on the campus can use their faculty to pull in research projects to build clusters from different departments across the campus, from biology and chemistry, from technology, and look for ways of identifying new and cleaner technologies of conserving and then looking at the public policy issues that are part of this. So I see it as a real opportunity to pull in not only the physical sciences, but the social sciences.

KP: being up in the mountains of north carolina, we think of appalachian serving the region which is something i'm very proud of, I think that we do that and have done it well. When we look at these particular issues, they seem bigger than just the region, it's a national, even an international area here. Could appalachian state university be involved in research that could make a difference nationally and internationally?

JP: I think that the types of problems that you see in the mountain regions...this is a very sensitive area, it is fragile. I came from the gulf coast, and we saw disappearing wetlands, and we saw the fragileness of our wetlands in this, and I learned something from that, and i'm seeing the same thing in the mountatin environment. So we're dealing with a fragile environment, and changes in our climate are going to have impact on our economy so we have a setting here that's rather unique, but it has similar kinds of problems to places on our coasts and throughout the world, so I thnk we have an opportunity to work within the southern appalachian mountain area and to try things and work together to try new technologies, to look at working with communities and engaging business, so we have a wonderful laboratory that has many similarities to other areas around the world and around the united states so it's not just exclusive to the mountain region, we're dealing with very sensitive and fragile environments, and we need to understand how people and our use of these environments, of the water and the air, how it's impacting us, so I think we have a wonderful opportunity to pull this together.

KP: Well, having you at Appalachian State is a great honor and we're pleased that you're here, how is it that we caught your attention?

JP: My son Matthew came to LSU, he was interested in going to school in a natural environment, he loved being outdoors, and he had friends here on the campus, so I brought a group of students here for a college trip, and he fell in love with it, so over the years, my wife and I came and visited, and we fell in love with it so it was just a matter of time. I grew up in the mountains of northern Virginia, part of the appalachians, and I wouldn't have known about it, and this wouldn't have been possible without my son.

KP: What did he graduate with a degree in?

JP: Sustainable Development.

KP: And, he's doing what now?

JP: Well, he lives in Hong Kong and he runs a non profit corporation and he's in graduate school and he's doing a global MBA program that's a joint program between the university of Hong Kong, London, and Columbia University, and he's just started with that. His experiences here pushed him, the faculty pushed him, and gave him international opportunities, he never would have been to Hong Kong if it hadn't been for the year of study abroad from ASU.

KP: Well we're proud of him, that's for sure, but we're proud that he brought you here to join the Appalachian community. You mentioned a while ago about the institute having several components to it, you refered to the appalachian energy center, and the center for economic research and policy and analysis, and then one that's on the drawing board for us being proposed-the southern environmental research and education center. Tell me a little about the operations of each of those two centers that are under way now and the one that's being proposed.

JP: the energy center of course is the most well known, and it had evolved for quite some time, most recently it has expanded in it's renewable energy both wind and solar. It is involved in policy, it helped develop policies for local government, I guess the model code for renewable energy, it has helped the state office of energy with their planning and strategic initiatives, so they have had good linkages with the state office, working with private industry, and working with entrepreneur groups here on campus to build bridges and maybe build new companies and endeavours, to test equipment, people see all kinds of ways that things can help you and ask is it really true, and so the wind group and the biofuels group have been expanding in north carolina at different universities and we have been able to develop strong linkages with them. The second one is the economic policy area, in 2004 they sponsered an international conference to look at a wide variety of economic issues, there is a book that came out as a result of this, and I think you have a group of 6 environmental economists and that is a large cluster, and that offers an amazing base of people and public agencies to work with. Of course, the notion of environmental economics is critical in explaining and looking a t different alternatives for energy use and sustainability, so you can't get away from the money so those two have been in place, they have research labs, test demonstration sites, and they're engaged with business and federal and state agencies, which is critical. The third one is maybe the most exciting for me given my background in environmental sciences, you have a large cluster here of people doing different kinds ofenvironmental monitoring. The first I would characterize is atmospheric monitoring. Just up from your home here is a tower with sensors where they are looking at different chemicals in the air. Because of the high altitude, they are able to collect information on aerosols in the atmosphere. This particular project gets partly underwritten by the national ocean graphic atmospheric administration, it is the only site east of the mississippi river, there are sites on the west coast in the mountains, the faculty here are very pleased. That group of faculty represent climatology in geography and planning, biology, chemistry, physics, I hope I haven't left anybody out. This is a an interdisciplinary team that formed a few years ago and they are being recognized and acknowledged as a group. There is a second group that has formed in the environmental center, and they have been working in the boone creek area doing restoration. To understand the problems you need data, and, as with the atmospheric group, they have been putting sensors into these water features so that you can get long term monitoring and get a baseline for understanding not only water quality issues for surface, but also subsurface aquifers we're using a lot of water in boone, and that's going to be a problem, they're going to need more water. As people move into these mountainous environments, we're using more and more water, so there's going to be some limits. With sensors, then you can understand some of the problems that come from not just water quality, but the effect of the use of areas around a water feature. For example, runoff from salts into the streams, what effect does that have on the ecology, on the living organisms, the plant and animal life? The whole notion of atmospheric sciences and it's effect on how streams behave in terms of flooding, downpours, rockslides, landslides, you begin to see relationships between monitoring atmospheirc conditions and then looking at land formation. The third thing that I see in the environmental area that the campus is well suited is the notion of planning and environmental management. You have one group on campus that is in recreation management and we want to teach students how to engage and manage in a mountainous environment or any kind of recreation environment, they need to understand what kind of impact people have when they use sensitive or fragile areas. The environmental management, from growth management into mountainous environments, the impact of growth on our water quality and accesibility. ??????? the final program is the one dealing with sustainable development it's a much broader approach in environmental sciences so the university has academic programs with students eager to work. One of my hopes is to engage students at the undergraduate level with their faculty in many projects. There was an example in the student newspaper about two weeks ago an honors class was engaged with the national parks service here in the boone area on hebron creek. The students were taught how to take water samples, then they walked around and looked at the area and the impact of the hikers and others on the fragile environment, so you have other faculty assisting in the class and they're doing some analysis and the report will be provided to the national parks service, that's just one example. And so to me, engaging the students in this research is a real opportunity, we have graduate students in some departments that can contribute, but we have a much larger undergraduate population that is eager to engage and be involved. And I wanted to comment on one of the things that surprised me about the students here on campus, and that's the initiative the students have adopted where they tax themselves to fund demonstration projects and I think it just shows how the university has nurtured and grown a group of young people that are so commited to the outdoor environment, they see it in their curriculum and they want to be engaged in this also, and I think it's a student led, student managed kind of effort, and I know you're proud of this, you spoke about it the other night at a meeting, so engaging the students has tremendous payoff, one for resources for the faculty to bring the students into the classroom, but getting them engaged really lights fires, and it lights fires for faculty too, I had a class last fall where we organized 100 students in our 5 sections of class and they interviewed students at LSU from their experience 4 years ago with [hurricane] Katrina, so we had LSU entering freshmen that were interviewing LSU seniors, so we taught them how to do interviews, how to analyze these interviews, and then presented that to the university, so I am convinced that undergraduate students can have a role to play in this, and it just challenges us as faculty to look for ways of bringing them and engaging them into research efforts engaging them in the field experience in this wonderful environment that we have here, so to me, that may be the sleepy one that the university is well prepared to take advantage of and bring these students and give them the opportunity that they might not have had at any other school because that school is not as engaged in these environmental, economical, and energy types of issues.

KP: we talk about making these projects happen through collaboration and partnerships, but the one that really surprised me, as you pointed out, is the relationship with the students that led this, and you are correct, this is a student led effort here, they tax themselves, 5 dollars to go towards renewable energy and sustainable development. They came out with the biodiesel fuel, which we use in our Appal CART, they came out with the funding for the solar panel in front of the college of business building, and those are done, but the granddaddy of all is the one that's coming up very soon, and you and I were in a public forum about it a week and a half ago, and that's the new wind turbine that's going up. Talk a little bit about that, how much you think that will save, and is it something Appalachian can do more of? How do you see this going?

JP: Well, I think it's a symbol. The turbine is a product of the appropriate technology department, the faculty are a part of the energy center, the students that were in the class, the ideas that came from the students when they had enough money to contribute to doing something like this, it wouldn't have been possible if you didn't have the energy center, and the faculty and the appropriate technology, so it becomes a symbol that will be at the top of the hill. It's a demonstration project, and people will see what it's like to have this very large wind turbine at the top of campus. It will generate electricity, and it will provide a means for students to monitor this, to see what economic impact that it has, what effect does it have on the culture of this community, so, they're truly engaged in this, so I think it's a symbolic nature of student engagement and bringing this into the research community and the academic parts of the program. And I think you're going to see more of this once you start it, it's going to roll, and I think we will see ASU being an even more green -symbolically- being environmental and energy, and trying to make a contribution to some very critical issues we're facing today, so I think it's a wonderful example of where you do something small and it has much larger effects that you hadn't anticipated.

KP: The senior class gift this year is going to be money that goes toward that as well as the funds that are in the renewable energy account that the students have put there, so it's truly made possible by the students and their commitment. Is it true that this will be the largest wind turbine on a campus and in the state of North Carolina, have you heard that?

JP: That's my understanding, and I think it's such a good example, where you put it in a very visible place because there are people that object, they're concerned about noise, about visual contamination of this beautiful environment, so we test it. I think that what you will find is that people might replicate the same type of technology with much smaller wind turbines, because they might be able to improve the technology with wind as well as solar to allow us to do much smaller projects and then we have a landscape here that's very high and we have wind, so it's something that could be done, not to the large scale that we have outside the broyhill conference center. To me it's a very visible symbol of an instutional commitment not just by the administration and the faculty, but also the students, and that's very exciting.

KP: Would it be possible to have an campus fully powered by wind turbines?

JP: Well, I know that your facility services here is investing heavily in reducing the use of energy. So in the notion of being a sustainable campus, you have a strategic plan to reduce use by different kinds of technology, for example a different kind of light bulb that uses less energy and so you have wind energy that could be a source, but then as you mentioned there are other types of renewable sustainable energy sources so the campus could instead of being a drag on the energy system actually be contributing more and more through different kinds of alternatives, so that's the strategy is reducing our use and our overdependence, the notion of biofuels, our imprint on the earth in terms of trying to make that more delicate, so you use biofuels instead of just all oil products so with a variety of strategies, I think we can make it a more sustainable campus. There are some campuses that have a very strong record, even in this state, so we want to go as far as we possibly can, and there's a great commitment on the campus to try it out and to make it a very sustainable type of campus so that in supporting activities that you can invest your resources on faculty on student activities on buildings and that you're not incurring expensive costs in powering this. So i'm not sure it would all be just wind energy, but it's going to be a more sustainable campus and I think that's the strategic plan you've initiated here with the student help and the faculty and all the staff that have contributed.

KP: Exciting projects here, and great possibilities, big dreams for us. You mentioned a while ago about water. I keep hearing that in North Carolina it's a big challenge for us, particularly in Northwestern North Carolina. You're kind of new on the scene here, from your analysis on this, how big is the water problem, and is it quantity or quality?

JP: It is certainly quantity. We have to do something to reduce our use, just as with fossil fuels, we have to reduce that. Many of the faculty have sensors and they're interested in looking at contamination of our surface waters from salt runoff for example. Experiencing a winter here, salt is going on the ground and it goes into the water features. What effect does that have when you're trying to filter this out is it having on drinking water, so that is somewhat of an unknown, but we know that we do use the salt and that's probably just one example of this, but we have pesticides. The beautiful landscape, we have christmas tree farms. In southern Louisiana, we have oyster farms, in the mountains of North Carolina, we have christmas tree farms. So growing these present different kinds of water quality issues, the pesticides, how much is enough, are there alternatives we can use? And I think the other thing is that as we grow in this region in populaition, what kind of stress do we put not just on the surface waters, but on the subsurface areas? We're blessed with snow and rain, so how long does it take to recharge an aquifer, a basin, so there are unknowns in that, so we have to involve geologists and geophysicists to look at those types of things and help us understand that, but water is going to be an issue. It seems that because we have so many rivers and it's so green, that water's unlimited, but I think it's not unlimited, and we realize that, and we may be doing something that could harm our future and we need to understand it and present enough information so that policy makers can both in the public and private sectors, the public sector being state and local governments and commisions, but then private sectors and businesses, they need to understand what they can do to help us be a more sustainable community in many respects.

KP: Well, John, thank you for being on the show today, and thank you so much for the leadership you're providing Appalachian State, as we do our best to address as Tom Freedman said the greatest challenge of our lifetime. I do think with your leadership and the commitment of our faculty staff and students that we can be a player in addressing these issues for our region, for our nation, and for our world. Thank you very much!

JP: Thank you Chancellor Peacock.