Back in 1990, when the Energy Efficiency Forum held its first meeting, few Americans would have known how to perform an internet search. In 21 years, the technology has become a daily, if not hourly part of our lives.
That seamless transition from niche to quotidian is the goal that brought energy thought leaders to Washington on Wednesday. Just as the basics of internet technology existed in 1990, the technology to vastly reduce energy consumption exists today. But for it to move into the mainstream, it will need to become easier, cheaper and maybe just plain more fun.
Here’s a snapshot of how some business leaders at the forefront of the technological transformation are hoping to get there.
“Why is it that my phone knows I’m here, but my office equipment doesn’t?” asked Rob Bernard, who spearheads Microsoft’s environmental strategy. Engineering isn’t the problem. Having the structures in pace to merge the technology and the information is.
Environmental point-men from leading U.S. companies brainstormed about innovative solutions at the intersection of technology and efficiency at the 2010 Energy Efficiency Forum. L-R: Rob Bernard, Microsoft; Neil McPhail, Best Buy Co.; Richard Lechner, IBM; Stephen Stokes, AMR Research.
These days, Bernard spends a lot of his time thinking about how to manage this all the way from the coders on down to the consumers.
Bernard’s counterpart at IBM is thinking systemically, too.
“You can’t look at this in the traditional silos,” said Richard Lechner, Vice President for Energy and Environment at IBM. One of his favorite examples is the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas, which uses a dashboard to look at all of the resort’s energy draws and make trade-offs so that the casino — the business’s main source of income — can stay open. The Venetian is even working with the city of Las Vegas to incorporate external issues like traffic and security alerts into its planning.
The ongoing smart grid lovefest shows that taking a wider lens to energy use isn’t just critical to reducing consumption — it also poses a huge market in its own right. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission is keeping its eye on the ancillary services market, currently estimated at $12 billion in the United States and growing.
Scaling Up in the Transport Sector
Robbie Diamond, president of the Electrification Coalition, frames his thoughts on the transportation sector with three numbers. “There are 1.6 million hybrids on the road today and it took about 11 years to get there,” he said. “But, there are 250 million other vehicles out there.”
Transportation, at once one of the nation’s most entrenched energy problem and most exciting solutions, remains a slippery sector. So far, plug-ins, hybrid electric and electric vehicles simply have not penetrated the market.
While a technological breakthrough on something like battery energy storage could be a game-changer, panelists Wednesday didn’t pin engineering as the biggest barrier. Cost and infrastructure are much more problematic, they agreed.
Plug-in and electric vehicles take 4-7 years to make up for the extra cost in fuel savings. That’s too long, declares Scott Harrison, CEO of the truck electrification company Azure Dynamics. “We’ve got to bring this down to a two or three year payback,” he said.
Meanwhile, Richard Lowenthal is tackling the problem of getting charging stations where people live and work. That’s no small challenge when the market remains scattered and when more than half the cars in his home city of San Francisco are parked curbside rather than in a home garage at night.
He’s watching Europe closely, though — his company’s biggest customer is the city of Amsterdam — and he maintains that it can be done in the U.S., too. Coulomb Technologies’ mission: to see the day when customers in an American car showroom can look at electric vehicle and not have their decision influenced by concerns about charging.
“It’s very important for people not to be told what to do or mandated what to do,” Lowenthal said. “Our businesses need to stand on their own.
L-R: Robbie Diamond, Electrification Coalition; Richard Lowenthal, Coulomb Technologies; Scott Harrison, Azure Dynamics; Thomas Reddoch, Electric Power Research Institute; Mary Ann Wright, Johnson Controls.
But the vehicle visionaries do see a way government can help the fledging industry get a foothold. Diamond’s Electrification Coalition has called for a program emulating the Department of Education’s “Race to the Top” competition. It would have communities compete to become deployment clusters. The idea is that these clusters, or “electrification ecosystems” would help different aspects of the puzzle co-evolve, and would provide valuable lessons learned toward nation-wide deployment.
“On one hand, it’s a race to the moon,” Diamond said, “on the other, it’s a very simple thing with lots of little logistical pieces.”
Improving User Experience
“Consumers will ultimately determine our success,” said Thomas Reddoch, whose Electric Power Research Institute focuses on technologies that touch the consumer such as vehicles, consumer smart grid technologies and distributed renewables. “Let’s not make our electric vehicles look like clown cars.”
It may sound obvious, but amidst all the talk of government incentives and business process optimization, sometimes it’s hard to remember that, at the end of the day, energy efficient technologies have to be something consumers want to use.
Neil McPhail is one person who doesn’t need to be reminded to think about the customer. His company, Best Buy, has profited by selling some of today’s energy hogs and now is carving out a new role for itself by carrying the voice of the consumer upstream to influence design.
“Our customers are starting to ask questions: ‘What’s the next step? This technology has become an integral part of our lives, but how do we balance that with efficiency?’” McPhail, the Senior Vice President and General Manager at the company, said.
For McPhail, the solution doesn’t have to be a wonky one. Maybe the “killer app” for efficiency will fill a need we’re not even aware of, like cell phones did. Or maybe it will take off for another reason.