When Hurricane Sandy pummeled New Jersey in 2012, Princeton escaped with far less damage than many other communities: mainly, 50 felled trees, blocked roads, and a loss of power from the local utility. The University managed to power the campus with its cogeneration plant. But instead of using power from its solar-panel field, Princeton shut it down. That might seem paradoxical, but there was an important reason for the decision: Solar power can come and go with the clouds, varying quickly from no power to full power. The variation had the potential to trip Princeton’s generator — and that was not a risk campus energy experts wanted to take. Had there been some way to store solar energy from sunny days for later use — like a giant battery — things might have been different.
A decade ago, these kinds of issues — enormous batteries, judicious use of electricity — were research topics at Princeton, to be sure, but they didn’t have a central home on campus. That changed with the 2008 founding of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, made possible by a $100 million gift from international business executive Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52. This fall, center researchers are moving into their home: a new building at the corner of Olden Street and Prospect Avenue. The question of how to build a giant battery is exactly the kind of multidisciplinary problem this center was made to tackle — in fact, a group of young faculty members is on the case. Their goal: to someday construct batteries into a building’s very walls.