January 2005

An Interview With the New Director

Dr. Fenton
New FSEC Director, Dr. Jim Fenton.
(Photo credit: Nick Waters)

On January 3, just a few hours after beginning his first day as FSEC’s new director, Jim Fenton talked with us about his new position.

Let’s pretend for a minute that today is January 3, 2006, and you’ve been in this job for a full year. Take a look back at that year and tell us how it went.

“Well, let’s think about that. I’ve been called a ‘dreamer’ on more than one occasion, so let’s review how my dreams for the year might have turned out.

During the year, we hired four new people to work with us on our research staff. They’re serving in tenure track faculty positions, and are affiliated with academic departments on the UCF campus, though they’re doing all their research right here at FSEC.

I see quite a few new graduate students working in our labs. Faculty members both at FSEC and on the main campus are serving on their committees and advising these students.

We’ve held several programs in a new seminar series that has brought in some distinguished speakers – in fact, we found a couple of our new researchers in this group when they came down as invited presenters. The guest speakers have spoken to the faculty on the main campus and have come over here to talk to our staff and even give presentations to the general public.

I think we’ve accomplished a lot of things in-house as well, ranging from filling some key positions that have been “interim” for a while to getting some exciting new education programs going and bringing in representatives of industry and other energy organizations to talk about our plans for the future. We’ve had legislators, government officials and others all in our building, learning about our activities and sharing their own plans and goals with us.”

How about any controversial activities during your first year? Did you raise any issues that generated special attention?

"Once our consulting public relations firm finished their report on FSEC marketing strategies, it was time to once again visit the whole issue of our institute’s name. This certainly wasn’t the first time FSEC has had this discussion, but I think we’ve now resolved the issue for some time.

Before I ever thought of coming here, I recall having seen or heard of FSEC on several occasions, but I had previously given little attention to these instances because I was more than 1200 miles away in Connecticut, and I wasn’t involved in solar energy activities at the time. But in my first year we had a good discussion of image, branding and name change ideas, so hopefully we’re moving forward a little more confidently now.

Dr. Fenton working at his desk
Dr. Fenton
(Photo credit: Nick Waters)

I may have also raised some comment by our efforts to make energy one of the state’s major topics. Too many people see alternative energy as just that – something that can be used in place of what they have now but isn’t really necessary. It’s been great working with the UCF faculty in helping make the whole area of energy a central point in people’s lives. I really am convinced that our work here is to be a true energy center in all aspects – bringing together a variety of energy paths and helping point the people of Florida in the directions that can let them take advantage of all the resources they have available in the state.”

You have said that you didn’t know much about FSEC, UCF or even the Central Florida area before coming down for interviews for the job. What about the opportunity here made the biggest impression on you and helped convince you to come here?

“Corny as it may sound, I was really impressed with UCF’s slogan of “promise to prominence.” The university is rapidly moving up to the Tier 1 level and is clearly becoming one of America’s major educational institutions. Frankly, I like to say that energy is my sandbox and it’s a great place to play, and the university has plans to make the campus sustainable, use “green” building design principles, encourage recycling and otherwise do the right things that help lower our reliance on fossil fuels. How could I not want to be a part of all this?

It was the space race of the 1950s and 1960s that landed men on the moon, and universities like UCF are going to propel us in our efforts to make the country more energy independent. I want to be in a place like this where I can work toward making my dreams come true. I like the Jules Verne-type of thinking, where the sky is truly the limit and problems can be addressed creatively. We do a lot of worrying about the right kind of engines for our cars, for example. Maybe we need to think outside the box and instead electrify the roads and take the engines out totally. A crackpot dream like this could get us thinking of new ways to use energy and change our societies to meet our needs with the resources we have available and that we can produce on our own.”

We look forward to hearing more about your dreams and where FSEC fits in with these plans. Can you share any others with us?

“I could, but I also want you to think about the dreams that every one of our staff members has. It’s not just my ideas that will shape the future of this center or take us in different directions. It’s theirs too. America has long been known as a land of dreams, so we need to listen to the people here and use their ideas to guide us.

One dream I have is to bring major solar energy manufacturers to Florida. Let’s go out and romance the energy producers and tout the advantages of relocating their companies here. We’ll bring in other departments on campus and other UCF organizations and further tie the university’s resources together in our plans. For example, we might get a call from a government agency asking us to conduct an energy survey in Florida. The first thing I would do is contact the people on campus and use their expertise, along with FSEC’s, to get things done.

I’ve got quite a few more dreams, but I think I’ll save them for another time. Let’s get started on the immediate issues first.”

What are your first impressions of Brevard County and this part of Florida?

“We really like it a great deal. You need to know that I was in Connecticut for 20 years and was still considered a newcomer by people up there. Most of the families could trace their lineage in the state back for a number of generations. The area is steeped in tradition, and after 20 years I was still an outsider there. The funny thing is that so many people I met were snow-birds who spent half a year or so here in Florida, but when they got back home they were still true natives. I guess you really had to start out there to be accepted.

Down here everyone seems to be from someplace else, and it’s easy to get accepted right away. When I was growing up in southern California, I walked through orange groves on the way to school. I’ve seen enough citrus trees around here to remind me of my time out there.

I’ve been impressed with the FSEC staff, and I look forward to getting to know each of them. Having 160 people working here doesn’t make it very easy to really get to know all of them, but I’m going to try.

I know my family is going to like it here. We’ve been especially impressed with the educational system in this area. Having three school-age kids, this has been an important factor in our relocation. But any time you have a place with so many major companies and technical firms like those that support the space program, you’re going to have parents that care about their kids. Keep in mind that the K-12 students today are the ones who will be solving many of our energy problems of the future.

One other thing about this county is that on the one hand, it’s too bad that we’re here and not right on the UCF campus in Orlando, in the middle of everything. There is so much exciting stuff going on over there that we absolutely need to be a part of it all. But on the other hand, what a tremendous opportunity it is for us to be located in this beautiful county, right on the water. So many professional groups and organizations come to this area for meetings that we’ve got to get more people over here to see our building and learn what we do.”

Can you tell us a little about your family?

“Sure. My wife, Suzy, and I have three children – Lexi, who is 12, and twins Scott and Abigail, who are 9.

I’ll tell you a little about my wife and then you can appreciate how truly excited we are to be coming to FSEC. We met at grad school in Illinois. She had a degree in civil and environmental engineering and had worked for some major environmental engineering firms, and was now a chemical engineering grad student. She shares so many of my dreams and interests about engineering, energy and other work-related topics that this was clearly one case of accepting a job where both the husband and the wife were looking closely at the technical aspects of the place.

I ought to mention one funny thing that happened to us. I took a sabbatical a few years ago and we moved from Connecticut to southern California for a semester. While we were gone, the faculty in chemical engineering asked her to be the assistant department head when she got back. Would you believe that just before we returned, the department head stepped down and I was asked to take over the job for a while? So for about a year, I was department head and she was the assistant department head of chemical engineering. That was really an interesting experience. Today, though, things are back to normal and Suzy is the boss once again”

One final question. What do you do in your spare time?

You mean besides dream about energy? I guess my main hobby is woodworking. We had a basement in our house in Connecticut that just wasn’t big enough for my tools and work space, so I’m having a heck of a time down here finding a house with enough room for my woodworking stuff. I guess without a basement, I’ll get banished to the garage.

Actually, Suzy likes to say that my hobby is collecting tools, not woodworking, so we need a lot of room for all my stuff. I actually work at just about everything, from construction to furniture, and have made desks, tables and lots of other furniture. In fact, I just finished building (actually, I did the building and Suzy got stuck with the finishing) bunk beds for the cottage we have in Vermont. Previously at the cottage we built a bedroom, laundry room and bathroom into the unfinished basement.

I guess it’s this builder thing that affects who I really am, and that’s probably what influenced me to apply for the job here. I know the importance of a strong foundation, and when I learned about UCF and saw the quality programs going on there, and then I found out all about FSEC and met the people here, I thought that I could become a builder of sorts and add to what is here now on this solid foundation. And that’s what I hope to do in the coming years.

Click here for the news release announcing his appointment.