Cleantech Sense and Sensibility: UCSD and Internet Guru Larry Smarr Push for Wide Adoption of Sensors to Save Energy, Cut Greenhouse Gases

If Jane Austen had been an avant-garde technology writer instead of a 19th Century English novelist, she might have imagined a character like Larry Smarr: a brainy and bespectacled man of 61 years who tends the roses and fuchias of his La Jolla garden on weekends while designing the infrastructure of the Internet the rest of the week.

In his Twitter bio, Smarr writes, “I was a mathematician, then physicist, then astrophysicist, then supercomputer director, now computer scientist. I have made change my friend.”

Now, as director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology, Smarr wants to do for energy conservation and green technologies what he did for Web innovation. He is enthusiastically endorsing the widespread use of sensors for real-time monitoring of power use in buildings. The savings could be huge and the environmental benefits enormous, Smarr says, because energy used to heat and cool buildings generates 40 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Smarr described the idea at a UC San Diego forum Wednesday evening: wireless sensors nowadays can continuously monitor temperature and many other factors inside and outside a building—and relay the data to Web-based environmental control systems designed to maximize energy efficiencies.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” said Smarr, adding that “the electrical bill of this building is $1 million a year.” During his presentation, Smarr noted that UC San Diego has now installed sensors throughout 34 of its buildings, and publishes the resulting data online and in real time. UCSD announced a few weeks ago that it has embarked on a $73 million program to increase the energy efficiency of 25 of its older buildings in an effort to reduce their combined energy costs by at least $6 million a year.

The concept is an example of what the forum’s organizers call “greenovation,” or green innovation. If Austen were still around, though, she might call it “Sensing and Sensibility,” or perhaps “Sense and Sustainability.”

Smarr told the audience that the desktop computers and servers in the UCSD computer science and engineering building account for 70 percent of the building’s baseload power demand. “And 90 percent of that could be avoided,” Smarr says, by adding software that would turn off display screens, internal wireless devices, and other energy-guzzling internal components when they’re not being used.

Whether Smarr’s call for a new era of energy-conscious chip and computer design will be heard in Silicon Valley and other hardware technology capitals remains to be seen. But UCSD, to its credit, has set out to establish itself as a nationwide model and campus-wide testbed for technology innovations in clean energy, water conservation, and other green initiatives.

Among other things, UCSD’s sustainability campaign has resulted in:

—Installation of micro-weather stations throughout the 1,200-acre campus to monitor outdoor temperature, humidity, sunlight, and other factors used to adjust heating and cooling of buildings.

—A smart grid that monitors energy use across the university and adjusts power production at the UCSD power plant accordingly. The university has a 30-megawatt natural-gas-fired power plant and about 1 megawatt of solar power production that generate 75 percent of UCSD’s peak power requirements.

—The San Diego campus also is developing an innovative fuel cell energy generation and storage system under $11 million in incentives awarded in July by the California Public Utilities Commission.

—An eight-story tank that stores 6.8 million gallons of water, which is cooled at night, when electricity is cheap. UCSD uses the water to help cool some buildings during the day, when electricity is expensive.

To build on the clean and green initiatives the university already had underway, UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox announced the formation of a Sustainability Solutions Institute in January with the idea of using university faculty, researchers, and students to identify sustainable technology innovations that can be used on campus and beyond.

“What we are trying to do is identify new [green] developments that have practical applications, and deploy it faster than they would through venture capital commercialization,” says Viswanathan “Vish” Krishnan, a professor innovation, technology and operations at the UCSD Rady School of Management.

Krishnan, whose research is focused on technology commercialization and new product development, says he has led efforts through UCSD’s Greenovation program to advance green technology innovations that represent “a high payoff with low cost.” He says sensors are an example of this practical approach. Krishnan contrasts that with the “billions of dollars that are being spent” developing energy-producing technologies that will end up competing with each other for market dominance, such as solar thermal, photovoltaic solar panels, thin-film solar, and concentrating solar technologies. “Sensors are a lot farther down in the value chain, but they represent a higher return,” Krishnan says. “That has not gotten as much attention as it deserves.”

Talon_Comm_logoKrishnan’s efforts also are leading to small, unknown companies with deserving technologies, such as Talon Communications, a San Diego engineering design firm that was founded in 2002. Talon CEO Scott McDermaid says the firm’s expertise in designing ZigBee-based wireless devices for a variety of military, commercial, and industrial customers resulted in a request from Southern California Edison to develop a simple device that could display the cost of electricity as it changes throughout the day. The idea was to alert homeowners to periods when the demand for electricity—and cost— is high, so consumers could turn off lights and lower their utility bill.

McDermaid says there’s no real need for such “In Home Displays” until state utility regulators adopt “dynamic pricing”—utility rate structures intended to reduce consumption by charging more during periods of peak energy demand. Nevertheless, McDermaid says Talon decided about a year ago to introduce the gadget—a refrigerator magnet about as big as a business card. As a consumer product, McDermaid says the device is so appealing he is now trying to decide if Talon should raise the venture capital needed to go into mass production.

Bruce V. Bigelow was the editor of Xconomy San Diego from 2008 to 2018. Read more about his life and work here. Follow @bvbigelow

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