When Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012, the massive storm damaged the complex and often hidden infrastructure of energy and water that holds parts of the coast together. Flooding wrecked homes, trees fell, and many communities lost electricity. Municipalities issued advisories for residents to boil water after supplies became contaminated.
Energy and environmental experts at a recent Princeton University gathering grappled with fundamental questions about how to build a stronger infrastructure and proposed solutions for providing and using energy and water more efficiently.
"Reliability is no longer good enough. What our customers want is resiliency," said Ralph Izzo, chairman of the board, president, and CEO of the New Jersey energy company Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG). Izzo gave the keynote on Nov. 11 at the Princeton E-ffiliates Partnership's Fifth Annual Meeting. The day-long event at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment that was attended by more than 200 guests including representatives from more than 18 companies and non-profit organizations, academics from Princeton and other institutions, policy experts, and Princeton students and postdocs.
E-ffiliates, a corporate membership program administered by the Andlinger center, seeks to spark innovation in energy and the environment through close collaboration between Princeton researchers and industry. The E-ffiliates annual meeting featured talks and panels on leading-edge energy and environmental solutions and the challenges of climate change.
Electric utilities need to evolve by boosting energy efficiency, investing in renewable energy sources, and making the electric grid more resilient, said Izzo, who oversaw operations when Sandy struck New Jersey.
Specific steps that PSEG is taking include implementing a future business model that encourages energy efficiency and executing its post-Sandy resiliency program, which has a budget of over $1 billion and involves raising substations, building redundancies, improving construction standards, replacing damaged underground cable, and trimming trees that may threaten power lines, said Izzo. On cleaner energy resources, PSEG has invested more than a $1 billion constructing solar farms and is retiring two major coal-fired power plants next year.
"Utilities are in the best position to ensure access to new, cleaner, and more efficient energy innovations for everyone, at all income levels," said Izzo.
Sankaran Sundaresan, the Norman John Sollenberger Professor in Engineering and professor of chemical and biological engineering, led the morning session of the event, which featured Izzo's talk and a panel that explored the energy-water nexus. Mark Zondlo, associate director for external partnerships at the Andlinger Center and associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, hosted the afternoon session, which included research talks and a panel on human behavioral dynamics and climate change.
For the panel on the energy-water nexus, panelists discussed the important role that water plays in energy production, and how energy is needed to make water suitable for human use through processes like desalination, an energy intensive process.
"Both of these resources – energy and water – face similar challenges," said panel moderator Eric Larson, senior research engineer at the center's Energy Systems Analysis Group. "The big challenge is to provide these resources at a quality level we need, where we need it, and when we need it, and to do so sustainably." Larson cited that one of the stressors on these commodities is the world's growing population, estimated to reach 10 billion by the middle of this century.
Experts on the panel showed that regions in the Middle East do not have strong policies that encourage water and energy conservation, and that many power plants rely heavily on water to generate electricity via steam-powered turbines and to cool the excess steam.
Other speakers touched on technologies that would "dry cool" power plants, using air and other materials instead of water, and desalination techniques that would be less energy intensive.
For dry cooling, researchers are developing different methods, such as using polymer-based, air-cooled heat exchangers to siphon off heat and specially-built cooling materials that can control the amount of heat radiating off water, said Addison Killean Stark, program director for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and fellow at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, an agency within DOE that has been funding these projects.
"We are going to see more and more water limits on power generation across the country, especially in the South and South West," said Stark on why these research projects are needed in drought-stricken regions.
During the second half of the day, Jose Avalos, assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, presented his research on making impactful and sustainable biofuels via metabolic engineering of yeast. Tyler Van Buren, research specialist at the mechanical and aerospace engineering department, talked about an innovative way to harvest wind energy by turning wind into a vibrating pressure field, which is then converted into electricity. The technology could be applied to the outside of buildings so that ambient air currents generate electricity.
Climate change and how to subtly get humans to perform actions beneficial to the environment and to conserve energy – even when it may not be in their immediate best interest -- was the theme of a talk by Elke Weber, the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment at the Andlinger Center and professor of psychology and public affairs, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
"Homo sapiens are not primarily creatures of rational deliberation," said Weber, arguing that people don't often take into account future consequences despite having verified information, such as copious United Nations climate science information that shows climate change is happening and people should preserve natural resources.
Weber argued that organizations trying to influence the climate change debate and craft environment-friendly policy should not use scare tactics but provide solutions, make greener choices the default option, and focus on making behavioral changes that encourage more sustainable choices.
As an example of promoting behavior changes, Weber analyzed the terms "carbon tax" and "carbon offset" in the context of air travel. People who respond negatively to the word tax, are more receptive to an offset, she said.
"Matching metrics or labels to the audience is another way," she said.
Her talk was followed by a panel on behavioral science and human behavior in energy and environmental policy. Speakers touched on how building design and behavioral interventions can reduce energy consumption and preserve the environment. The panel emphasized the importance of bringing a behavioral perspective into the planning and design phase of new technologies to facilitate eventual adoption and use.
A research poster session and reception concluded the annual meeting. More than 35 students and postdocs presented their research projects, which ranged from sustainable cements to innovative ways to cool buildings via specially-built structures.
"Breaking down walls between disciplines and professions is the key to meeting the world's energy needs and a cleaner environment," said Yueh-Lin (Lynn) Loo, director of the Andlinger Center, the Theodora D. '78 and William H. Walton III '74 Professor in Engineering, and professor of chemical and biological engineering. "Collaboration with industry helps us implement impactful energy and environmental technologies and solutions for the world."