Seminar Tackles Tough Question of Electric Energy Management

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A day-long seminar hosted by Boston University addressed complicated questions in energy management on May 21.

“Disrupting the Status Quo in Electric Energy Management: A Systems Approach to a Sustainable Energy Future,” brought 168 guests from industry, venture capital and academia to the Photonics Center to hear from leaders in energy management. Lecture topics included future energy systems, building infrastructure and a panel discussion on widespread adoption of new energy management strategies.

“Sustainable energy is among the most critical problems society faces today,” said Associate Provost and Vice President for Research Andrei Ruckenstein in his opening remarks. “It may also be among our most complicated problems.”

The morning lectures and discussion focused on transforming the electric power system into a smart grid – an electricity delivery system that would incorporate technology to maximize energy and monetary savings while also increasing reliability of power delivery.

Professor Michael Caramanis, who works on combining wind-generated power with the use of electric cars, said the electric power system is the largest machine that humans have made, making it one of the most complex to overhaul.

Those responsible for modernizing the US energy grid must understand both the engineering and the economics of the finely nuanced challenge, said William Hogan, the Raymond Plank professor of global energy policy at Harvard University. To make a smart grid will require both complex technology advances and finely tuned policy changes. The smart grid must incorporate advanced sensors and automation as well as nuanced strategies for pricing electricity in real time.

“If we knew what to do today, we should do it – get out our crayons and map of the US and draw the super grid,” said Hogan. “But the uncertainty of conditions requires innovation – promoting practices not yet identified or even imagined.”

Speakers from PJM, an electricity transmission company that manages much of the eastern US, and the Boston-based energy management company EnerNOC, described their companies’ forays into smart management of energy loads. Institutions such as hospitals and universities sign up with these companies for incentive programs. The institutions get paid and then occasionally get called upon to quickly cut down electricity usage when demands are high in their region.

This type of “demand response” program by companies that stand between the utility and the consumer may become a more widespread strategy for the relatively few days that demands peak, but that utilities must be prepared for at any time.

“Most energy management these days happens by looking in the rear view mirror,” said EnerNOC President David Brewster, whose company manages 3,000 megawatts of energy at 5,000 sites. “You can create a system that’s much more efficient. We’re spending billions of dollars to build infrastructure that sits idle 90 percent of the time.”

In the US, this approach has not reached the level of individual houses, a market where the addition of some in-home automation and customer awareness of fluctuating prices could make a meaningful impact on the country’s energy use, the speakers noted.

Christos CassandrasDepartment of Electrical & Computer Engineering professors Christos Cassandras and Tom Little spoke about energy innovations coming from their labs. Cassandras works on sensor networks, control systems and algorithms that could become powerful tools in developing smart ways to save energy. Little described his work as a member of a National Science Foundation SmartLighting Engineering Research Center, investigating the use of energy-efficient LED lights as a communication network.

Thomas Little“LEDs are low cost, highly controllable and adaptable lights that can be used in a wide variety of applications,” Little said. Twenty-two percent of the world’s energy use goes to lighting, he added. “There are tremendous opportunities to save energy around the world.”

College of Engineering Dean Kenneth R. Lutchen spoke about the role of engineering education in addressing the complex and highly interdisciplinary challenges in the energy field, citing flexibility and agility as the keys to training engineers for leadership roles.

“The leaders of the future have to understand that the problem is not just about technologies, not just about policies and politics, not just about sustainability,” Lutchen said, “It’s about all of those.”

The day concluded with a panel discussion in which energy industry executives, moderated by Rob Day, president of the Renewable Energy Business Network, considered widespread adoption of new electric energy management strategies.

The event was hosted by BU’s Center for Information and Systems Engineering, College of Arts and Sciences, Division of Systems Engineering, School of Management and Sensor Network Consortium.