New Energy Economy

Depiction of Energy GridBeyond the Smart Grid: Partnerships for Sustainable Communities

We all certainly know what America’s “Old Energy Economy” looks like; it’s (still) everywhere around us.

More than 90% of the U.S. transportation sector now relies on petroleum products like gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel. Most of this oil comes from foreign sources, including many autocratic and unstable regimes. Meanwhile, our U.S. domestic oil production is increasingly coming from environmentally sensitive and even risky locales such as deep-water wells in the Gulf of Mexico.

For electricity, most American consumers rely on coal, natural gas, or even nuclear power. Here in the Northwest, we’re fortunate to derive most of our electric power from an “old renewable” source: hydroelectricity. But even that has its challenges, reflected in the environmental challenges of dams and long-running issues over endangered species such as salmon.

So what would a “New Energy Economy” look like – and what will it take to get us there?

Across many divisions and disciplines, including the Center for Public Service, faculty and students at PSU have been exploring how we might redesign existing courses and develop new ones that will help answer these questions – and prepare the energy industry and society for this new energy economy.  In March, CPS will offer its fourth “Smart Grid” related course, with a particular focus on the intricacies of effective policy within the context of the state’s Public Utility Commission recent investigation involving Smart Grid initiatives and plans. Beginning in June, the Hatfield Summer Institute will likely feature additional courses designed and offered with other PSU partners such as the School of Engineering and the School of Business.

Diagram of Smart GridThe Center for Public Service began exploring the New Energy Economy in early 2009, when Jeff Hammarlund, an adjunct faculty member at CPS and a former utility executive, launched a self-support course entitled “Planning the Smart Grid for Sustainable Communities.” More than 100 students and practitioners across the Northwest have now enrolled in this class, which is currently in its third iteration.

In addition to receiving generous support from Portland General Electric since the course’s inception, over the past several years Hammarlund has recruited additional key industry partners, including Climate Solutions and Intel Corporation. Other U.S. institutions are now reportedly modeling their Smart Grid offerings on PSU’s, and recently the Obama White House staff asked for a background briefing in advance of the President’s February 2011 visit to Intel.

Some have referred to the Smart Grid as the “brains” of the New Energy Economy, and in many ways it’s an apt description. This umbrella term is used to describe various new approaches and technologies that are capable of managing energy generation and distribution in a far more responsive, dynamic way. “The Smart Grid is especially relevant to the Northwest region for two reasons,” notes Hammarlund.  “First, it will support the integration into the overall power system of  ‘intermittent’ renewable resources such as wind and solar. Second, it will encourage and reward consumers who use electricity more efficiently and allow the utilities to forgo the need for starting up so many expensive and polluting stand-by ‘peaking plants’ that are only used during the warmest days and coldest nights.” For example, it’s far better to charge electric vehicles (EVs) at night, when other demands are low, than late on a hot summer afternoon when air conditioning loads are already taxing the system.

PSU and Portland General Electric have partnered effectively to make this region a national leader in the expansion of EVs and the infrastructure necessary to support them, such as “quick charging” stations that only require 30 minutes to replenish an EV battery. Faculty such as George Beard (also affiliated with CPS) and entities such the Oregon Transportation Research and Education Consortium (OTREC) located at PSU are at the forefront of these efforts.

While technology is a key aspect of these changes – e.g, building increasingly efficient batteries, or designing flexible and reliable “smart grid” distribution systems – so, too, is careful planning and good public policy. In addition to designing, locating, and financing EV charging stations, policy makers will need to grapple with contentious issues such as “dynamic pricing” – paying more for electricity during certain “peak usage” periods – and urban planning challenges to accommodate new ways of generating and using energy.

It’s this kind of multi-disciplinary approach across many academic departments that will best propel PSU’s efforts to be a regional and national leader in defining and promoting the “New Energy Economy.”

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