Seattle Week in Review: Northwest Energy, Space Education, & More

Xconomy Seattle — 

This week, we’re reviewing a new long-term energy plan for the Northwest that calls for more of the same: energy efficiency.

Also, a new regional space education effort is under way. Might it yield applicants to NASA’s next astronaut class (the latest one received a record 18,300 applicants)?

And check out some good reading and viewing recommendations on the economic impacts of the instant-gratification economy; the propensity of males to underestimate their female peers in undergraduate science classes; the merits of leaving your digital technology behind when exploring a city; and The Human Face of Big Data. On to the highlights:

The Northwest can accommodate growing energy demand over the next two decades largely through energy efficiency measures, as it has done since the late 1970s, as well as demand response, a small amount of new renewable energy, and new natural gas generation.

The Northwest Power Planning Council, which sets big-picture strategy that seeks to balance energy and environmental needs in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, says that by 2035, the region’s expected population of some 16 million people, generating $170 billion in industrial output, can get by with roughly the same amount of electricity used today: 20,000 average megawatts.

Northwest energy resource development anticipated in the region's Seventh Power Plan. Source: Northwest Power Planning Council.

Northwest energy resource development anticipated in the region’s Seventh Power Plan. Source: Northwest Power Planning Council.

That’s because even though energy demand is expected to increase by between 1,800 and 4,400 average megawatts in the next 20 years, the Council, in its Seventh Power Plan, approved earlier this month, calls for adding about 4,300 average megawatts of energy efficiency. About a third of that is needed in the next six years. That’s good news for companies making and installing everything from insulation and efficient windows to smart thermostats and LED lighting.

Deep in a draft version of the plan’s appendix (PDF) is a discussion of the “cannabis load”—increasing energy demand from the region’s newly legal marijuana industry. The plan estimates that indoor production of a kilogram of marijuana uses anywhere from 2,918 to 6,100 kilowatt hours of electricity. The plan forecasts that marijuana production in 2035 could consume 180 to 300 average megawatts, or about 1.5 percent of total electricity use at the, ahem, high end. All the more reason for the industry to establish better efficiency practices now, as a new report advocates.

The plan also calls for more demand response to reduce peak energy demands in summer and winter by paying large energy users to cut power consumption during those times. The software and systems necessary to implement demand response—including, potentially, on-site energy storage to enable industrial customers to undertake their own energy arbitrage—represents another area of commercial opportunity.

But what of carbon emissions? Relying heavily on efficiency has natural emissions-reduction benefits, of course. There are also plans in place to retire three Northwest coal fired power plants in the next 10 years.

The plan anticipates replacing them with natural-gas fired plants. These factors alone are expected to reduce annual emissions from the Northwest power system from 54 million metric tons in 2015 to 34 million metric tons in 2035. (There’s an ongoing debate over when and whether to retire coal-fired plants at Colstrip, MT, which by themselves emit 13.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses each year.)

The plan outlines scenarios in which emissions could be reduced further still, down to 16 million metric tons in 2035 by retiring all the region’s coal power, and adding even more energy efficiency and demand response. Replacing those coal plants with renewable energy could reduce emissions further, but the plan suggests this would require setting a price on carbon of $40 to $60 per metric ton.

Some critics called out the plan for giving renewable generation relatively short shrift. “The plan devalues the next generation of renewable energy which, despite 35 years of Council indifference, has grown enormously in the region, drawing investments, creating jobs, supporting local communities and reducing climate emissions,” writes the Northwest Energy Coalition, a broad group of organizations advocating for renewable energy and efficiency.

Meanwhile, the governors of 17 states including Washington and Oregon pledged to advance renewable energy and efficiency deployment on economic merits, without making mention of climate change. Here’s the “Governors’ Accord for a New Energy Future” (PDF).

Astronaut Terry Virts conducts a spacewalk during an orbital sunrise on Feb. 21, 2015. Credits: NASA

Astronaut Terry Virts conducts a spacewalk during an orbital sunrise on Feb. 21, 2015. Credits: NASA

Turning our attention to the heavens, NASA received more than 18,300 applications for its 2017 astronaut class, a record number of would-be space explorers and scientists eager to push out the human sphere toward Mars. Only eight to 14 individuals will ultimately be selected, trained, and assigned to missions aboard the International Space Station, the Orion deep-space exploration spacecraft, or spacecraft under development by Boeing (the CST-100 Starliner) and SpaceX (the Crew Dragon).

The surge in applications was pronounced, and perhaps unsurprising given growing commercial and public interest in space exploration. NASA received nearly three times as many applications for the current class compared to the 2012 class. The previous record for astronaut applications was about 8,000 in 1978.

Perhaps the Northwest will be fielding more would-be astronauts (and rocket scientists and astrobiologists and satellite engineers) thanks to a new NASA-funded program to provide STEM education programs to more middle-school and high-school students around the region. The goal of the Northwest Earth and Space Sciences Pipeline, a five year, $10 million effort, is to attract more kids—particularly from underserved and under-represented communities—to STEM fields with engaging content focused on space, as well as Earth observation, a large but lesser-known part of NASA’s work.

“There’s definitely a strong leakage of students out of the STEM pipeline,” says Robert Winglee, a University of Washington professor of Earth and space sciences. “That’s a real weakness for the region if we want to be compete economically in the future. That leakage starts at middle school and it continues through high school and into undergraduate education.”

Winglee notes the job opportunities now and in the future at a growing number of commercial space businesses setting up or expanding in Washington state. “So it’s just not NASA,” he says. “It’s the private sector.”

The UW-based effort, which involves some two dozen museums, colleges and universities, school districts, and service providers, will coordinate efforts to bring science to the students, particularly in rural areas and tribal communities. For example, the Washington Aerospace Scholars program, based at the Museum of Flight, is expanding to offer online courses to students around the region.

“We are making science mobile to reach kids in rural areas,” Winglee says.

Winglee readies a bottle rocket with a student. Credit: Washington NASA Space Grant

Winglee readies a bottle rocket with a student. Credit: Washington NASA Space Grant

Week in Preview: PBS will air a one-hour documentary next Wednesday, The Human Face of Big Data, featuring stories and interviews from 30 data scientists, artificial intelligence researchers, and other experts, including Shwetak Patel, a University of Washington computer science and electrical engineering professor who has too many other titles to list. It airs on KCTS 9 at 10 p.m. Looks great. Here’s the trailer:

We covered a handful of big-ticket M&A deals across the Xconomy network this week. Some highlights:

Stryker agreed to pay $1.28 billion for Physio-Control, a storied Seattle-area medical devices maker.

IBM Watson Health announced a $2.6 billion acquisition of Truven Health Analytics, gaining some 2,600 employees and a lot of data covering various aspects of healthcare costs and outcomes.

GTCR, a Chicago private equity firm, agreed to pay upwards of $500 million for Lytx, a San Diego-based maker of dashboard video telematics and driver risk management services.

Good reads:

—The experience of unboxing a cardboard box full of cardboard boxes of diapers produces in me a specific moment of existential angst, and not just because it’s a reminder of how many diapers I’ll be changing in the days and weeks to come. The New York Times unpacked the environmental impacts of our instant-gratification economy—both through the proliferation of disposable packaging (much of which can be recycled) and emissions from fleets of on-demand delivery vehicles.

—Emily Parkhurst, digital managing editor at the Puget Sound Business Journal, shares her personal experience of leaving off pursuit of a marine biology degree, at least in part because she didn’t receive support from male professors and students. It’s a telling anecdote to illustrate a recent University of Washington study that found “males enrolled in undergraduate biology classes consistently ranked their male classmates as more knowledgeable about course content, even over better-performing female students,” according to a UW Today summary. The authors of the study, published in the journal PLOS ONE, write that this under-estimating of women can undermine their self-confidence and contribute to higher rates of attrition in the physical sciences for women than men.

—Not sure what to think about the epic battle for security and privacy unfolding this week between Apple and the FBI? One option is just to ditch your device forever, or at least for a while, as Seattle Times Pacific NW magazine writer Tyrone Beason did. His essay on “the art of winging it” this week begins:

“Let’s get lost.

“Let’s set aside our phones and tablets and declare a holiday from algorithms that can predict our every online whim, from satellite navigation, from the culture of consultation, from life hacks, from the tyranny of recommended experience and the vicarious thrill of knowing all the cool things other people are saying and doing.”