Innovations in Smart Energy: Using IT and Other Advances to Curb Runaway Dependence on Fossil Fuels

Almost from the moment that Thomas Edison had the first filament of an idea, the light bulb has been a symbol of invention—and of the Eureka! moment that comes with innovation. But as public awareness of green and clean technologies has gained currency, the incandescent light bulb of yore might just as easily serve as a symbol of traditional energy sources, burdened with all sorts of hidden and not-so-hidden costs.

In other words, light bulbs are out. LEDs are in.

At Xconomy, we’re anticipating waves of similar innovations that incorporate smarter and more efficient ways of using energy to heat and light buildings, to transport people and goods, and in both supplying electricity and operating the power grid. And as Internet pioneer Larry Smarr pointed out Tuesday afternoon, there also are smarter ways of applying what he calls ICT, information and communications technology, to use less energy.

Calit2 Director Larry Smarr

Calit2 Director Larry Smarr

“Energy is one of the remaining industries that has not been transformed by digital information technologies,” Smarr said. He cited a “Smart 2020” report prepared by UCSD and UC Irvine that found “ICT’s largest influence will be by enabling energy efficiencies in other sectors, an opportunity that could deliver carbon savings five times larger than the total emissions from the entire ICT sector in 2020.”

Smarr provided an overview of what such innovations could look like as he kicked off the Xconomy Forum: The Rise of Smart Energy Tuesday afternoon. More than 125 people attended the afternoon conference at UC San Diego’s Calit2 (the California Institute for Information Technology and Telecommunications at UC San Diego), where Smarr has served as founding director since 2000. As several attendees told me afterward, his opening keynote talk laid out several prevailing themes that threaded through the presentations and discussions that followed.

Those themes unspooled in a panel discussion about the kind of innovations that will be needed in sensor networks, IT infrastructure, and software analytics as California utilities struggle to provide electricity to customers in 2020, when a third of the energy on the grid must come from solar panels, wind turbines, and other intermittent sources of renewable energy. Jan Kleissl, a UCSD assistant professor of engineering, explained how a sensor network that measures radiant sunlight in real time could help utility operators cope with precipitous drops in solar power production as clouds pass overhead. Alex Guazzelli of San Diego’s Zementis talked about the company’s capabilities in software analytics, and how pattern recognition technology that is used to assess the risk of a fraudulent credit card transaction also can be used to identify power grid components at risk of failing. And Terry Mohn of Balance Energy, explained how electricity from PV solar can suddenly change by 1,000 volts—enough to blow out the utility’s nearest transformer. Mohn described how “microgrids” could help utilities match energy supply with demand—or balance the load—by providing extra energy into a regional power grid at times when renewable power production falls off.

I thought it was interesting that Mohn, who also serves as vice-chairman of the non-profit GridWise Alliance, says state regulatory mandates that require utilities to get 20 percent, 33 percent, and even 40 percent of their power from renewable energy sources have been far more effective in driving energy innovation than “cap and trade” proposals that would allow utilities to swap their CO2 pollution.

Some other observations that stood out for me:

—In his case study presentation, EcoDog founding CEO Ron Pitt said he initially thought data that would be generated by his home energy monitoring device would be hosted in the cloud, but he changed his mind when he realized how revealing the information would be. In a pilot trial, Pitt said, “We were able to tell that the homeowner had a glass of milk at midnight, because we could see the change in energy use when the refrigerator door opened.” EcoDog’s device instead sends its energy consumption data to the user’s personal computer.

—The presentation by Achates Power CEO David Johnson served as a reminder at just how far we have to go in terms of improving energy efficiencies. Achates has developed a high-efficiency diesel-powered combustion engine that is targeting the market for commercial trucks and long-haul transportation, where he says 2 percent of the vehicles are using 20 percent of the fuel. While a conventional gasoline engine operates at 30 to 35 percent efficiency, and a conventional diesel engine operates at 40 to 45 percent, Johnson says Achates’ design operates at 50 to 55 percent efficiency. There’s also still plenty of room for innovation in photovoltaic solar cells, where commercial solar panel currently operates at about 20 percent efficiency (with researchers working with experimental PV attaining efficiencies of more than 40 percent). The current electricity generation and transmission system in the United States operates at an efficiency of about 32 percent, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

David Johnson of Achates Power

David Johnson of Achates Power

Qualcomm’s Manuel Jaime outlined what he calls “the promise and peril” that electric vehicles pose for utilities, and how a wireless wide area network (WAN) can help utilities with real-time load control of the power grid. Jaime says EV ownership will likely be clustered in affluent neighborhoods, at least initially, which could create unforeseen energy demands with the potential to overload the nearest transformer. Jaime also described an anticipated “charger availability issue” that would require EV owners to make reservations at a charging station. Wireless WAN technology could be used to both to map EVs and charging stations and provide needed data for an EV management system. “The integration of these things into the EV itself is going to be critical to the adoption of these technologies,” Jaime said.

Eric Giler, the CEO of Watertown, MA-based WiTricity, gave a mesmerizing presentation of the company’s “wireless electricity” technology, which uses magnetic induction to transmit electricity without wires between two coils that are tuned to the same resonant frequency. In demonstrating the technology, Giler said it represents a safer and easier way to charge electric vehicles, with the potential of eliminating 17 barrels of imported oil each year, and between 1.5 and 4.7 tons of carbon dioxide annually. The technology was conceived by MIT assistant professor of physics Marin Soljačić, who won a MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” in 2008 for his work in this field.

The technology was impressive, but Smarr, who also is a co-principal investigator on the National Science Foundation’s GreenLight project, warned during his keynote talk that such innovations in smart energy might not come rapidly enough to staunch the unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide that are gushing into the atmosphere from the worldwide combustion of fossil fuels. Curbing CO2 emissions will require “heroic efforts,” Smarr said, adding, “nothing indicates to me that we have the will to do that.”

In charting the confluence of global forces that are shaping our childrens’ future, Smarr says we’re heading into an alarming nexus of climate and energy problems at a time when human beings also are increasing the population of the planet by 50 percent. Mindful of his diverse audience, Smarr concluded by thoughtfully recommending two contrasting books on the subjects of energy, carbon dioxide, and the future of our planet. For the technically minded, David JC MacKay’s “Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air;” and for a more popular view, Thomas L. Friedman’s Hot, Flat, and Crowded.”

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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