Cumberland Times-News

November 4, 2013

There’s more to SERF story than has been told


Cumberland Times-News

— I am writing to address the story about Frostburg State University’s Sustainable Energy Research Facility (SERF), which appeared in the Nov. 1 issue of the Cumberland Times-News (“FSU’s Sustainable Energy Research Facility sits empty,” Page 1A).

This story presented a very limited view of this project, and I wish to present a fuller representation of this ambitious program.

The SERF building itself was substantially complete and dedicated in October 2012, but the systems required to operate the building off the grid were not. The control systems in a building of this kind are highly complex, challenging to design and hard to implement.

As we told the reporter, classes are not currently being held in the building, but faculty and students are at work designing and testing the many systems required to make this building a complete reality.

SERF is already a living laboratory; this is the reason the University accepted the challenge to design and construction a research laboratory that will function off of the grid unlike any that has come before.

Yes, there have been administrative hurdles with this project. For example, the University chose to delay implementation pending the outcome of the legislative audit to ensure that any subsequent steps complied with all requirements of the multiple oversight agencies involved.

FSU has been fully cooperative with the auditors, a point that was noted in the auditor’s cover letter, and remains committed to being a good steward of the resources entrusted to it. Also, if the story left the impression that the city of Frostburg is holding up the progress on this building, that impression is false. FSU will not apply for an occupancy permit until the building’s systems are complete. Building a structure like SERF is not like building a house, or even a normal academic building. The building itself is an experiment.

Much more data is required to make design decisions, everything from the direction the building faces to the materials used to the processes required to make cutting-edge technologies work together.

The project has evolved throughout its design and building process, and the knowledge acquired thus far regarding the use of multiple renewable energy systems in a single building is immense.

What is being learned here in Frostburg will one day feed into renewable energy design projects all over the world.

In the best sense, this building will never be complete, because as new renewable energy generating technologies are developed, this living laboratory will work to convert them to practical use. An individual homeowner or business would not have the ability to experiment with renewable energy the way an academic institution would.

A university exists, in part, for the purpose of creating and testing new ideas. The work being done at FSU will benefit homeowners, small businesses and farms, for they can utilize the results of the rigorous study being done here to incorporate renewable technologies for their own use.

This is the message that needs to be taken away from the SERF project.

 Joseph Hoffman, dean

Frostburg State University College of Liberal Arts and Sciences