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The Cleanest Power Plant Is the One Not Built

• January 16, 2009 • 7:30 PM

University centers harness brainpower and technology to stop wasting energy — conserve, baby, conserve!

If only we could stop wasting energy. Then perhaps we wouldn’t have to worry so much about offshore drilling, our reliance on foreign oil or whose backyard is best suited for the next nuclear plant.

That, at least, is the hope of many researchers and scientists laboring to find not necessarily new forms of energy but more efficient ways of using the stuff we already have.

“Improvements in energy efficiency can have a far bigger economic and environmental impact, realized far sooner, than the development of alternative energy sources,” said John Bowers, professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

Bowers is also director of the university’s Institute for Energy Efficiency. Here, he said, the focus is on reducing energy demand “because the cleanest power plant is the one you don’t have to build.”

The institute was launched in February 2008, and Executive Director Daniel Colbert came aboard only in June. “Our mission,” he said, “is to make a difference in the energy equation.”

Personal Virtue or Virtually Transparent?
Colbert believes the best way to achieve that is through improving existing technology rather than trying to bring about behavioral changes, such as turning down the thermostat, putting on an extra sweater, driving slower or turning off the lights.

In fact, when it comes to turning off the lights, Colbert thinks that is best left to sensors. “There is plenty of technology which, if implemented correctly, does not require people to modify their behavior,” he said.

This institute mirrors similar centers across the nation, some of them long established. For example, The Energy Group, now part of the Princeton Environmental Institute, was set up as a research unit at Princeton University in 1971.

And some of those institutes have a different take on the role of the individual. James Sweeney, director of Stanford University’s Precourt Institute for Energy Efficiency, said they are looking at the interplay among technology, economics, regulation and human behavior.

Just as dashboard monitors showing Prius drivers their mileage per gallon and whether they’re using the car’s battery or gasoline have changed driving habits, so Sweeney believes smart electricity meters at home could have the same effect.
The Precourt Institute recently held a workshop looking at the potential to change energy-consumption habits by, for example, displaying real-time information about how much energy heating, lighting and individual appliances are consuming.

“There is increasing recognition that energy efficiency is a preferred resource warranting aggressive public investment,” said Sweeney, a professor of management science and engineering.

The Precourt Institute enjoys the patronage of Jay Precourt, who, two years ago, committed $30 million to be spent over a period of about seven years on buildings, faculty endowments and operating expenses.

Precourt, who holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in petroleum engineering from Stanford, has spent a successful career in the oil and gas production and refining industries.

Colbert puts his annual research budget at around $10 million, the bulk of which comes from federal grants, primarily through the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy. The institute has also just submitted a $25 million grant proposal to the DOE.

Looking at the Small Picture
At UCSB, most attention is paid to the energy-hungry areas of lighting and buildings; the transmission, conversion and storage of energy (which includes solar panels, fuel cells and batteries); and computing and networks.

Our apparently insatiable appetite for electronic data has sparked an equally voracious appetite for energy. Colbert said there are now thousands of large data centers, each with about a million servers. “(In 2007), more was spent on electricity to run them (an estimated $3.3 billion) than on the equipment,” he said.

As chips become faster, denser and more numerous, they require ever more power — typically about 40 percent of their energy, Bowers said — just for interconnection.

But electricity running through tiny wires on the surface of a chip — like water flowing through a pipe, Colbert says — meets resistance, and the frictionlike effects mean lost energy in the form of heat.

The best way to overcome this, while still enabling increasing numbers of chips to “talk” to each other, is through optical connections rather like the fiber optics used in telecommunications. UCSB researchers are now working on such systems, which Bowers predicts will result in huge energy and economic savings.

Colbert believes energy efficiency is the largest single component in the wider debate over energy — how to meet the ever-growing demands of the modern world while protecting the environment and guarding against global warming.

While he cautioned there’s “no single silver bullet” in the search for answers, Colbert does not think enough attention has been paid to energy efficiency. “Efficiency is the low-hanging fruit,” he said. “In many cases it’s the cheapest option to implement, and it often provides almost instant payback.”

Within manufacturing and industry, energy efficiency opens up “significant savings possibilities,” according to Lawrence Ambs, professor emeritus in the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

Ambs is co-director of the university’s Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which he said has an annual budget of “well over $1 million,” with more than half that coming from the DOE and local utilities.

An expert in applied thermodynamics, energy conversion and industrial thermal processes, he sees major potential energy efficiencies through capturing the waste heat generated during industrial processes and using it for heating, for cooling or to create electricity.

With the right devices and systems, Ambs thinks industrial energy efficiency can rise from about 35 percent to as high as 80 percent. And he has some evidence to back that up.

Since 1984, under the Department of Energy’s Industrial Technologies Program, he has taken part in about 600 site visits to small- and medium-sized manufacturers throughout New England, compiling best-practice reports, recommending improvements and estimating the costs and payback times.

Since this free service began in 1976, the DOE estimates manufacturers have saved on average more than $1,000 per week through efficiency and productivity gains, with enough energy saved to power a city the size of Boston for a year.

UCSB’s Institute for Energy Efficiency says the energy spent powering buildings costs $340 billion annually, accounting for 40 percent of the nation’s total energy bill and producing 50 percent of U.S. carbon emissions.

You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Building
Leon Glicksman, professor of building technology and mechanical engineering at MIT and for 20 years director of MIT’s building technology program, is a specialist in designing and creating energy-efficient buildings.

He says one research area is natural ventilation for commercial buildings. Designing for the flow of air from vents, windows and the chimneylike circulation effects of tall atriums is technically challenging but can significantly reduce the need for costly air conditioning and heating.

Another technology looking to achieve something similar is using natural light to counter the high costs of lighting commercial offices, which, ironically, are mostly occupied during daylight.

Glicksman says reflective devices that carry the light deeper into the building could save half of present lighting costs. Still, achieving a healthy, workable distribution of light — like fresh air — is much more difficult than it sounds.

He also predicts significant energy efficiency from so-called “smart buildings” in which microprocessors monitor things like occupancy, lighting levels and temperature. “That’s been a gleam in people’s eyes for a while,” said Glicksman, who blames uneven progress to date on the fragmented nature of the building industry.

The evolution of the humble light bulb, from incandescent to fluorescent to the latest light-emitting diode (LED), is among the most vivid examples of energy efficiency, at each stage producing more light for less electrical input.

According to UCSB’s institute, lighting and information displays gobble up 22 percent of U.S. energy. But incandescent lighting is only 4 percent efficient at best, fluorescent is only 25 percent efficient, and “LEDs already top 50 percent efficiency and have the potential to reach 80 percent.”

Thanks to the groundbreaking work of solid state lighting researcher professor Shuji Nakamura, a working white light LED source has been developed in the laboratory at UCSB. Bowers said it’s still too costly to produce commercially, but once this happens it will trigger dramatic savings in energy, money and carbon emissions.

Bowers foresees a similar stellar trajectory for solar energy as nanotechnology harnesses new materials with the capacity to more than double the (roughly 20 percent) efficiency of today’s commercially produced photovoltaic devices.

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Frank Nelson
Frank Nelson has written for newspapers and magazines in England (his original home), New Zealand (his adopted home), Australia (a temporary home) and the United States (his current home). The author of two lighthearted travel books, All You Need is Luck and A Little More Luck, he is now a freelance writer based in Santa Barbara, Calif.

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