UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Zoë Rauscher arrived at Penn State as a first-year student, she “knew nothing about solar," she said.
Now, in her third year as an environmental systems engineering major, Rauscher is preparing to spend the summer studying the policy implications of regenerative land practices on solar farms. She is working with Jeffrey Brownson, associate professor of energy and mineral engineering, and other students in the Solar Collaborative.
The lab gives Rauscher and other students the opportunity to gain hands-on field experience in solar energy, one of the fastest-growing career fields in the United States.
During her time with the solar research collaborative, Rauscher has been focusing on the impact that vegetation underneath solar panels has on the array’s energy production, as well as the array’s impact on the surrounding environment.
Her work led her to apply for and receive a grant from Lightsource BP, the same company Penn State signed a power purchase agreement with in 2019 to create a 500-acre solar farm in Franklin County, Pennsylvania. Rauscher plans to use this grant to enroll one or more of the solar farms in Franklin County into the United States Department of Agricultures’ Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP), the country’s largest private-land conservation program. The long-term goal of CREP is to reestablish valuable land cover to help improve water quality, prevent soil erosion and reduce loss of wildlife habitat.
Through CREP, farmers enrolled in the program receive funds from USDA if they agree to remove environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and plant species that will improve environmental health and quality. Currently, no solar farms in Pennsylvania are enrolled in CREP.
“If we can get solar farms enrolled in CREP, that’s kind of a bell going off in landowner’s minds saying ‘hey, wait, solar can improve my land,’” Rauscher said.
Rauscher is passionate about helping farmers and the public realize the positive environmental impact solar energy has on both climate change and the health of the land on solar farms. Although she was interested in helping the environment before she got to college, Rauscher said it was her experiences at Penn State that helped her focus on slowing climate change.
As a first-year student, Rauscher got involved with student organizations focused on climate change. In her sophomore year, she served as president of the Society of Environmental Systems Engineers. As club president, she took pride in planning field trips and getting first-year students excited about their major. She says it was a field trip the club took to an acid mine drainage site in her first year that helped her get excited about her major and the research involved in it.
These days, Rauscher is spending a lot of time working with the solar collaborative. She says she likes that the group is so open and welcoming to the curiosity of those involved.
“Nobody’s afraid to ask questions," she said. "Dr. Brownson challenges us all the time to not assume that somebody’s already done something. If you think of an idea, don’t assume that somebody’s already looked into that.”
Rauscher credits the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences with giving her an outlet for her inquisitiveness and ideas.
“As a first-year student I was interested and I wanted to do something related to climate change and EMS is what facilitated my ability to pursue my interests,” Rauscher said. “There’s a talk every other day about climate, or the economics of climate science, the solutions, that kind of thing. There are so many ways to learn. I can’t tell you how many climate books I’ve checked out from the University’s libraries.”
Rauscher plans to continue working with climate change initiatives after she graduates from Penn State next year. In the meantime, she has no plans on being bored as she finished her degree.
“If you want to learn and you’re not afraid to ask questions, you’ll never run out of things to do here.”