Professor: Silo-Busting Will Bring Clean, Efficient and Smart Power More Quickly

By connecting the power supply system to wastewater, transportation and heating and air systems, one professor is arguing that a clean infrastructure portfolio is more achievable.

by / February 23, 2016
The Grand Coulee Dam in Washington state is the largest hydroelectric power generator in the U.S. Shutterstock/Edmund Lowe Photography

The energy system of the future might look very different than what’s in place in the U.S. today: Influencers ranging from the White House down to college professors are pushing for more renewable energy, more battery storage and more efficient technology.

But how does the country get there? According to one researcher, it could happen a lot more quickly and efficiently if leaders look beyond just electricity.

Rhys Roth, director of the Center for Sustainable Infrastructure at Evergreen State College in Washington, published a white paper Feb. 18 outlining a vision for how the Pacific Northwest could improve its electricity efficiency at least 50 percent and produce at least 90 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2040. While other research projects have struggled to push numbers for the region that high, Roth wrote in the paper that breaking down silos could do the trick.

The complex system he described pulls efficiency and power generation from many different places:

  • Smart meters and battery storage could help electricity customers reduce demand during peak hours, use renewable energy when it’s needed instead of when it’s generated and help smooth out fluctuations in power use.
  • The region could use its established hydropower generation ability — dams in the Columbia River Basin already provide half the electricity in the Pacific Northwest, according to the report — to provide power when the sun isn’t shining on photovoltaic panels and the wind isn’t blowing through turbines.
  • Heat pumps, which pull heat from a building’s environs without generating new heat, would reduce power demand.
  • Solar water heating would reduce water heating demands as well as air heating demand.
  • Wastewater treatment plants, using the plant in Gresham, Ore., as a model, could begin using sewage to produce electricity. Sewage systems could also be used to heat buildings and manufacture soil amendments.
  • District energy supply systems, which share heated and cooled air between nearby buildings, would reduce demand for those uses.
  • Electrified transportation — cars, trucks, trains and perhaps even aircraft — would increase the demand for electricity but reduce demand for fossil fuels, which the region has to import, effectively leaking money to other regions.

The report acknowledged that the area would still likely need some fossil fuel-based power generation capacity by 2040 even if all its components fell into place. A big reason for that is the need to meet an increased demand for power during the winter months — during those times the sun shines less often, removing that power generation source. And if the state went through a dry spell, hydroelectric dams wouldn’t be able to produce as much power either.

The benefits of Roth’s system, he wrote, extend to a lot of different areas. Customers would end up paying less for electricity, the region would stop leaking money to oil-producing states, cleaner air would save people money on health care and the power grid would have many more assets to control its operations.

He gave seven recommendations for steps state governments can take to support the development of his clean, energy-efficient future, including clear goal-setting, remaking of utility regulations and striking up partnerships to help encourage investment.

“A serious and sustained commitment to a state infrastructure strategy will create a platform to consider whole systems and identify integrated solutions that deliver benefits across silos,” Roth wrote. “Wide deployment of heat pumps and electric vehicles, for example, may increase demand on the electricity system, but will save money, create jobs and reduce fossil fuels for the Northwest as a whole.”