Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Two Questions and One Long Answer

I recently received an email that included the following two questions.

“What are your thoughts on how your IT skills might be transferred to the renewable energy field?”

“Are you thinking of the business side or the non-profit side more?”

My response to these questions surprised me a little bit and helped me to frame what I’m doing. I wanted to post this response in this forum as well and see if anyone has any comments.

Good questions. My response has gotten a little long but both of your questions open up a lot of territory!

I’m open to working in a for-profit, non-profit, governmental or academic organization. I believe that it will be possible for me to utilize my skills, experience and enthusiasm to work on renewable energy from any of these perspectives. However, I do believe that it’s critical that renewable energy continue to develop in such a way that it is financially competitive (if not superior) to fossil fuel energy for both the producer and consumer. As long as people have to pay a premium renewables will remain alternative rather than go mainstream. I believe that all four types of organizations have a key role to play in creating a sustainable energy future. That said, my experience in IT has all been in for-profit companies and I’m quite happy working in that environment.

I believe that technology provides tools for people to solve problems and maximize the potential presented by opportunities. This is the spirit that I bring to my exploration of how I can use my background in the renewable energy field. I’m primarily interested in understanding the challenges the renewable energy industry is facing and then look for ways that I can apply my skill set to make a difference.

The digital world we live in requires software and IT systems in an amazingly diverse number of areas. The possibilities I see for how I can apply my IT/software background is equally diverse. Here are some of the ideas that have surfaced during my investigation:

• Consumer Education

o Carbon and other types of calculators (for example http://www.climatecrisis.net/takeaction/carboncalculator/). What is the next generation of calculator going to look like? How will efficiency opportunities be incorporated in the calculators?

o Web based marketing and education campaigns. Eyeballs are looking at the web around the world making this is a fantastic medium. One of my client groups at Target was On-line Marketing and I can see how a number of the things that Target did to build brand could be applied to renewable energy education and enrollment such as games, contests, and user submitted content (movies, stories, songs, art work, etc).

• Community Organizing

o Creating web based applications that allow neighbors to work together to change the energy choices in their community. Community owned solar or wind project. “Ask your neighbor” discussion forums. Offering ways for people to express their desire for sustainable energy options.

o Credit trading systems such as the Chicago Climate Exchange (http://www.chicagoclimatex.com/)

• Distributed Generation Management

o Creating/enhancing software to monitor distributed power generation and maximizes the financial reward (use immediately, store for the future or sell back to grid).

• Centralized Generation

o What systems are used to monitor and control turbines in wind farms?

o New approaches to solar (http://www.stirlingenergy.com/) may require specialized software and systems.

• Modeling – applies to both Distributed and Centralized Generation

o Refining models of wind speed and available energy

o Consumer Information about Solar – see http://www.technologyreview.com/read_article.aspx?id=17129&ch=biztech for bit about plan to create a web application that will provide consumers and builders information about wattage they can expect from integrated solar systems.

o Ocean wave and tidal energy.

• Marketing of renewable energy solutions

o Renewable energy carbon offset purchasing

o Providing online tools for people to see the financial and aesthetic impact of different energy system options.

• Holistic solution design

o Provide tools (wikis, discussion forums, VOIP conferences) for interdisciplinary and geographically disparate teams to work together on projects. Projects often require significant involvement from business, design and technical experts to be successful.

• Appliance manufacturing (i.e. solar photovoltaic panels and membranes, wind turbines, geothermal systems) companies have information management challenges. I could work directly for one of these organizations. For Example SunPower, SunTech or Evergreen Solar.

• Building construction and renovation

o Streamline the LEED certification and application process through on-line tools. I understand that USGBC has been working with Adobe to do this.

• Demand management

o Smart appliances that can monitor grid demand and operate a lowest cost or most efficient times.

o Feedback systems to allow people to see the complete cost of their energy consumption patterns. The interfaces for these systems could be built into cell phones, PDAs and other items that we keep close to us on regular basis. You could hit a button on your phone to see your carbon footprint for the day with a couple of simple suggestions for what you could do to change the pattern. Data could come from things as diverse as your car, your electric utility, your refrigerator, and your computer.

• Financial Modeling. Are there customized solutions needed to support the financial models used to argue for public policy, corporate policy and personal choices?

• Bio Fuels.

o Manufacturing facility monitoring and control. Are there any special needs of the bio fuel industry that are not currently being addressed?

o Research into cellulosic ethanol technology. My undergrad degree is in biochemistry. I imagine that these companies create mountains of data that has to be managed and presented in such a way as to be usable.

• Distribution and Grid management.

o Transmission capacity. Provide tools for a consumer/developer to be able to negotiate with the utility?

o Location, Location, Location. How do we get power produced in one location to a consumer in a different location? Are there “better” ways to manage this that require software to make real-time decisions and provide feedback?

As I mentioned in my initial email, I’m most interested in distributed generation. There are two reasons for this. First, I’m a strong believer in enabling people to participate. Distributed generation allows many more people to be contributors and consumers rather than just consumers. Second, more diversity in a system makes it more stable, flexible, reliable and secure. In IT this is called avoiding single points of failure. In natural ecosystems we call this biodiversity.

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