Great Expectations Along the Columbia River, as PNNL Reels In Big Energy Problems

3/12/10Follow @xconomy

There’s a billion-dollar-a-year research operation in the middle of Washington state, with 4,600 staff, working on some of the biggest energy challenges in the world. Yet very few of the locals know a thing about it. And while it hasn’t solved the world’s energy woes, people should start counting on breakthroughs to emerge from there, according to one of the lab’s leaders.

“You should have some high expectations of us,” said J. Michael Davis, the associate laboratory director in the Energy and Environment Directorate at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, WA. “If you were to pull people over driving along I-5 and ask them about PNNL, they’d say, ‘What’s PNNL?’ But we spend a lot of tax dollars. We should have some high expectations.”

Davis made his remarks this morning during a wide-ranging talk at the Technology Alliance’s Science & Technology Discovery Series at the Rainier Club in downtown Seattle. This was not the usual fundraising commercial I expected from a senior manager at a government agency. It was more like a sobering, hour-long reminder of what a lousy job the country has done over the past three decades to meet energy needs, along with an update on some of what the lab is doing to make a difference.

At the most basic level, everything is going up—demand for energy, U.S. dependence on imported oil, and carbon emissions around the world. While this has been happening over the past 30 years, national labs like PNNL have allowed a lot of researchers to pursue their curiosity independently, without really being mobilized together in a strategic way.

J. Michael Davis

J. Michael Davis

“It’s the ‘let 1,000 flowers bloom model,’” Davis said. “We were not focused on large challenges. Everybody would do their own thing. Did some good things come out of it? Surely. But we’re not solving the big problems fast enough.”

There are some daunting barriers in the way. The U.S. has 3,200 utility service areas with distinct physical and regulatory boundaries, Davis said. This isn’t, as you might imagine, a very efficient way to collect broad, real-time information about power supply and demand around the country. To make real progress, capital, technology, and policy all need to be rowing together in the same direction, and to hear Davis talk, they aren’t all in sync yet. (You can hear him talk about this a little more in this clip on YouTube.)

“What if you had 3,200 Internets?” Davis said. “We’re trying to improve the system without a consensus of what is needed, and where to focus.”

One of the big issues is with managing the demand side of energy. The public utilities of generations ago established a mandate to provide an abundant supply of reliable electricity, without much regard to managing the demand side of the equation from consumers. That’s where the “smart grid” comes into play. The concept is that if consumers could get real-time information on their energy usage, and pricing, they’d probably be more likely to run the dryer at, say, 9 or 10 pm so they could save money by using cheaper energy at non-peak times. This is going to take a lot of getting used to for many consumers, as my San Diego colleague Bruce Bigelow pointed out earlier this week.

So what kind of progress is coming from the PNNL on the smart grid? Davis didn’t say anything to knock me out of my chair. But the lab is part of a five-year, $178 million smart grid demonstration project that includes Bonneville Power Administration, a dozen utilities, and 60,000 customers in five states.

Energy storage is one of the lab’s priorities of late, Davis says. While a traditional coal or nuclear plant can churn out a steady, continuous stream of electricity to meet demand, renewables like wind and solar are naturally bound to fluctuate a lot more when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. That’s where storage can even out the peaks and valleys, to make renewables more reliable. “We need to know how to integrate those resources, and even them out,” Davis said.

Toward the end of his talk, Davis referenced how the lab has the ability to carve out $50 million out of the overhead portion of its $1 billion budget, and set it aside for projects with breakthrough potential. It’s like a venture capital fund that researchers at the PNNL compete for internally, but “you don’t have to walk far to get,” he said. But he made it sound like researchers will be awarded for projects that think big, and are focused on the big ideas that could make a difference for the average citizen driving down I-5 every day.

“Our job is not to make things 10 percent better,” Davis said. “We have to take new risks, and try breakthrough approaches. A national lab is the perfect place for this.”

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