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Once a physicist: Philip Earis

Philip Earis is editor-in-chief of Joule, a new sustainable-energy journal. He recently returned to the UK after three years living in India, where he founded “Project Light” an organization bringing solar power to off-grid communities

What sparked your interest in physics?
Physics provides a framework to explain and predict how things happen – from the tiniest scale up to the most immense. I have always found the huge range and power of physics, as well as its unifying potential, to be conceptually very stimulating.

How did you get interested in sustainable energy?
For many years I’ve been passionate about energy conversion and storage. In 2008, when working for RSC Publishing, I launched and ran the journal Energy & Environmental Science. This led to me being closely connected to exciting research breakthroughs that had the potential to lead to more sustainable energy. My RSC role took me to India in 2013, where I formed and developed networks with the rapidly growing Indian research community. India is an amazing country, and anyone living there is struck daily by massive contrasts. Seeing how communities were impacted on many levels due to a lack of access to electricity was eye-opening. Realizing that through my knowledge and networks I could help to make a difference to off-grid communities was sobering. It was an opportunity I felt compelled to take. So I collaborated with scientists and partners in India and internationally to set up Project Light. The organization helped develop and install customized, sustainable-energy technology that met the needs of people living in unelectrified villages and urban slums. Our work enabled many people in marginalized communities to get onto the first rung of the energy ladder.

What were some of the challenges in setting up solar-energy technology in off-grid areas in India?
Working with and among people living in very difficult real-world conditions quickly made me realize that many of the challenges were not what I had initially presumed. We faced technical challenges in ensuring that our basic solar-energy systems were sufficiently robust and essentially indestructible. They needed to survive and function effectively for a long time, and also work year-round in harsh conditions – punishing heat and humidity, heavy dust and pollution, and three months of monsoon weather. The installed systems were also located in precarious environments – on shack housing, often in areas with many local rats with a taste for gnawing cables – and needed to be safe and simple to use in communities often lacking education. Working in India also frequently presents a barrage of bureaucratic and logistical problems, from the mundane – transporting equipment and transferring money – to the unexpected. But one of the joys of the country is the inventiveness that people use to get around these issues, coupled with their warmth, joy and optimism; even when their own lives were very disadvantaged. Being able to bring basic electricity to such communities – and through this enabling economic and educational opportunity, better safety and improved quality of live – was very motivating.

What are you working on now?
I now have a publishing role with Cell Press, launching the new sustainable-energy journal Joule. Our key aims are to span different disciplines and levels of research, and be forward-looking. Joule will better connect lab-based researchers doing pioneering fundamental materials research into energy conversion and storage, together with people involved in the energy industry at large – including those working on energy policy, energy access and techno-economic analysis. My time in India showed me that the quest for more sustainable energy depends on people with different backgrounds looking at the same problems from different angles. I am also acutely aware of the importance of making progress with sustainable energy – it impacts billions of lives around the world.

How has your physics background been helpful in your work? 
Physics is such abroad discipline, and the quantitative nature of the subject really helps in modelling and analysing problems. To solve a problem, we need first to understand it. The physics mindset of thinking about how different variables affect a system is an important step in developing appropriate solutions.

Any advice for today’s students?
Spending extended time visiting, studying or working in different countries, especially in very different cultures, broadens your perspectives in ways that can be hard to articulate or predict. I recommend it highly. More generally, actively seeking out and meeting lots of people, asking questions and trying to understand what they do, and why, can open up many possibilities. Finally, be mindful that collaboration and competition are both important.

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