UW Energy Talks Dive Deep into Boeing Biofuels, Smart Grid Savings, and Solar Cells

3/19/09Follow @gthuang

New ideas for alternative energy and cleantech were in the air on Tuesday at the University of Washington, which hosted a regional meeting of the National Academy of Engineering and a public symposium on energy topics. We’ve taken a keen interest in this subject lately at Xconomy as we prepare for our own Northwest cleantech event next week, and wanted to hear from a couple of our very own Xconomists—Ed Lazowska of UW computer science and engineering (who co-organized the meeting), and Charles M. Vest, president of the National Academy of Engineering and the former president of MIT.

In his opening remarks, Vest noted that the National Academy of Engineering will soon release a report called “America’s Energy Future.” “We hope it will become a bible for policymakers to understand what the technological and economic facts are about most of the major technologies that may play a role in the next 10 to 20 years in the distribution, generation, and transportation of electrical energy,” Vest said. “It will not be a policy document, but it will be a basis of facts which we hope those in Congress and the administration will utilize.”

Here are a few highlights from three of the ensuing energy talks:

—Rob Pratt, a staff scientist and program manager at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, spoke about “smart grid” technologies and how minute-by-minute communications and monitoring of energy use could lead to huge overall savings in cost and carbon emissions.

In California, for example, an estimated 1 percent decrease in electricity demand would lead to a 10 percent decrease in energy bills, because electricity generation is most expensive during times of peak demand (e.g., hot summer days). That could translate into some $50 billion in savings for the U.S., if people had enough information about power usage to adjust their consumption levels.

Pratt presented the results of a trial of 112 homes on the Olympic Peninsula, in which letting customers explicitly control their energy usage and savings (and guaranteeing they would not pay more than normal) led to a 15 percent decrease in peak load demand over the course of a year. “You need a simple, intuitive interface,” Pratt said. “Do you need standards for [smart grid] communication? Ours were simple—you need to understand cost, quantity, and time.”

As for his outlook, Pratt said, “I predict this country will embark on an energy efficiency program that will make anything else we’ve done look like child’s play.” He noted that the cleanest power plants are the ones that produce energy for intermediate demand levels—not the peak, not the lowest. And he sees a big opportunity in electric vehicles, provided people manage the timing of charging them up. Giving consumers and utilities minute-by-minute data to track usage levels will be crucial. “The smart grid can help sort this out,” he said. “If we buy the smart grid, this is free. This is like software.”

—Tim Rahmes, biofuels program manager at Boeing (he’s based in Everett, WA), spoke about his team’s recent efforts to test biofuels for aviation. Boeing’s customers in the airline and defense industries are concerned with carbon emissions, fuel availability, and fuel costs, he said. The most important thing about Boeing’s biofuel effort is that it must be sustainable, and not compete with … Next Page »

Gregory T. Huang is Xconomy's Deputy Editor, National IT Editor, and the Editor of Xconomy Boston. You can e-mail him at gthuang@xconomy.com. Follow @gthuang

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