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  • season 1, episode 12: the science of renewable energy

    Episode 12: The Science of Renewable Energy

    Easy access to affordable, sustainable energy would revolutionize human civilization. Scientists may be closer than ever to cracking the code. Our expert guest Dru Crawley explains how far we've come, what's next, and how you can help.

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Featured Guest

  • Dru Crawley, Bentley Fellow / Director, Building Industry Development

    Dru Crawley

    Dru Crawley has more than 40 years of experience in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and sustainability. He currently is focused on building performance, zero-energy buildings, and smart cities.

    LinkedIn | Twitter

The ability to create a zero energy community is there... Buildings such as schools and warehouses might be able to produce more energy than they use and offset the high energy users. @drucrawley #ScienceChampions #CelebrateScience
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There's a lot of things that people can do in their own homes to reduce energy, and it saves you money at the same time. @drucrawley #ScienceChampions #CelebrateScience
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Read Full Episode Transcript

  • Science Champions - The Science of Renewable Energy

    Jayshree Seth: Seventy-five percent of people believe science will solve the problem of affordable renewable energy in their lifetime. How much progress have we made towards that goal? What challenges remain? We'll visit the future of energy this time on Science Champions.

    Welcome to Science Champions. I'm your host, Jayshree Seth, Chief Science Advocate at 3M.

    The availability of energy has an enormous impact on human civilization. In the 18th century, the Industrial Revolution changed the way people lived, worked, and even how they dressed. But the amazing technological advances came with a high cost: the pollution that comes from millions of people burning coal and fossil fuels.

    For society to continue to advance, we need clean, renewable, affordable energy. It's a problem that scientists have grappled with for centuries, and one with no real single simple solution. But as today's research becomes tomorrow's technology, we're perhaps closer than ever to cracking the code. My guest this episode is Dru Crawley. He has over three decades of experience working on renewable energy, sustainability, and energy efficiency. Dru, tell me about your work.

    Dru Crawley: Sure. I'm Dru Crawley. I am a Bentley Fellow and Director of Building Performance at Bentley Systems. We're an infrastructure software company and we provide tools for everything from heavy road rail plant buildings to make it easier to design them in 3D. My role at Bentley as a fellow has been to really look at what's coming in the future and try to keep an eye out on what we should be looking at and trying to engage with researchers at universities and other opportunities to really improve our infrastructure, particularly buildings. I'm a registered architect and I also have a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering.

    JS: Thanks, Dru. It seems like much of your work revolves around the idea of the smart city. Can you explain what that term means?

    DC: It depends on who you're talking to. Smart cities, I think, unfortunately, right now is in the buzzword phase and there's so much going on on it. I think it has potential to be a way for our cities to use all the data that we will be collecting in a way to make transportation easier to, you know, smooth traffic snarls, but also to make our buildings more efficient.

    It also involves data collection of just about everything going on within the city itself. And then the idea behind that using big data analytics to be able to look at it and make the city work better. And so I think that's why people are excited about it. But it gets into just about everything involved in a city, from the people, their environment, and how they interact, and the utilities, as well as transportation, and other infrastructure. That’s why I think it's so weird and wild today.

    JS: So are there any smart cities in the world right now? If not, how close are we?

    DC: I think we have bits and pieces. For example, I heard that Helsinki, which is really taking a lead in this. Helsinki, Finland is looking to do a 15 block section of downtown over the next five years, creating what would be a smart city prototype for them. And there are others... And so a city like Portland, Oregon is really trying to organize something in that area as well. I don't think there is a single smart city. I think there are cities beginning to acquire that information and use it, but there I'm not seeing anyone that's there yet. Well, I think it kind of like it says it is in the hype stage. It's, "Okay, here's all the opportunities, but what's really worth it and what are we going to collect data for? And what it would be used for." That's where it will come down to.

    JS: That makes sense. Yeah. Now, you've been studying energy efficiency and renewable energy for three decades. What breakthroughs have you seen in the past five years?

    DC: I have to say that 10 years ago, I never would have seen where we are today, the fact that renewables are taking such a big role, that the price has come down so radically, that it's something you see here everywhere. Everywhere I travel now I see fields of photovoltaic panels and wind turbines that just weren't there before. And the impact that's already having on the grid where we're seeing, I don't know, I think it was Germany, last month, had several days where the entire electric grid was powered for a day by the renewables in there. And that was kind of a dream we had maybe a decade or so back. But the fact that it has come to fruition so quickly in the last five years is pretty amazing.

    JS: What do you feel is just over the horizon? What breakthroughs will we see in the next five years?

    DC: I think one of our biggest challenges is in the area of storage. You know, the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine. And if we're going to use those as renewables, we have to find a way to be able to store that for use in off time. And I believe that's gonna continue to be one of the biggest challenges where the storage is going to be...has become sort of the Holy Grail that you see.

    In the industry people are looking for new methods of storing that will be efficient and be able to provide the equivalent, that renewable resource 24 hours a day. I think storage is the biggest obstacle there. Our renewables continue to improve in efficiency but, you know, the photovoltaic panels are still pretty low on the efficiency scale and we don't...their laboratory methods of improving that are really making great strides.

    JS: What do you think is the most exciting work being done in the field?

    DC: One of the most interesting things I've seen in the laboratory recently or coming out of the laboratories, a clear photovoltaic panel. You know, I've seen scales that are like four by four inches. But the idea that we could have something that's transparent, we could use those instead of windows, instead of our normal glazing. And that might be an opportunity to have some synergy and help reduce the cost even further.

    JS: That does sound promising. So what obstacles are scientists working to overcome?

    DC: One of the challenges has been that renewables are pretty much a distributed resource, they are very local, you know, to your house, or to a community or something like that. And we have grown accustomed over the last hundred years of having a centralized grid. Managing something that's so distributed is a huge challenge. I think the utilities are quite rightly concerned about having all these sources that they're not in control of just suddenly dumping power into the grid.

    And that continues to be and will be a challenge for them. It's a lot easier if you're managing, you know, a few dozen power plants. It's when you're talking about hundreds, thousands of sources, it's gonna be more of an issue. I think there is also a lot of progress being made in sustainability. But I don't think we are seeing people really embracing it. If you look at the green building rating systems that are out there, we're not seeing them adopted by maybe a few percentage points under 10%, definitely, of all the building work that's going on out there. It's not become so mainstream that everybody does it.

    JS: That makes sense. Yes.

    DC: When I was at the Department of energy, we did a study to see what it would take to...or whether it was technically possible to take commercial buildings to zero. And the reality there was there's a large sector of the buildings that we will never get to zero. There's just physically not enough surface area to put renewables on there to do it. And think of restaurants and hospitals, and other high energy users, it's just not there. The good part is that there are a... And large number of our buildings that are pretty low rise, that are not very energy intensive.

    And so that ability to create a zero energy community is there so that building such as schools and warehouses might be there and be able to produce more energy than they use and offset that energy that the high energy users are needing. So it is there but it's not...I don't think we're gonna see an entire sector that goes to zero.

    Jayshree: Interesting.

    DC: There's some interesting things that go on. I mean, if you delve back into the history of the electric grid, you see Westinghouse versus Edison. And Edison was very much a proponent of very local power generations and of Manhattan were set up that way in the early days. But it was DC power and DC power doesn't distribute very well. Westinghouse saw the power of being able to do AC power and put it over long distances, and being able to use that as central scale. And, you know, he won out in the end on that part of the electric grid.

    But there are a lot of opportunities for using DC power very, locally, very efficiently. And that I don't think we've really acquired where that's headed yet. There definitely it does seem to be an opportunity, though, Tesla is doing some interesting things with their work, with the state of Victoria. And Australia, they just put in a megawatt or more than that, I forget the number exactly. But a huge battery pack to support the grid. And so even though its individual battery packs, the idea they've been able to do to do that may give us a path forward. But I think there are many people working in the storage field and Tesla is not alone.

    JS: I agree. What other factors are at play besides technological and budget limitations?

    DC: Well, as with a lot of new technologies, there has to be a societal and policy emphasis on them. And it does take an interest beyond just the technologists that are really trying to push it,

    the scientist trying to push a new technology. If the policy, whether it's local or national or international, is not supporting the idea of using some of these new things, they take a long big time to get in there.

    When I was at the Department of Energy, we had commissioned a study, for example, by the RAND Corporation to look how long it took new technologies to get in the building sector. This was 15, 20 years ago. But, at that point, they had looked at a number of new technologies that we're heading into the residential market. And it was taking 15 to 20 years for them to become pervasive. So if there's no help out in the marketplace, it takes a long time to permeate.

    JS: Absolutely. How can scientists make this topic more relatable to the general public?

    DC: One of the things that I find... I do a lot of talks around the world every year, and I find that people respond to seeing something that they can touch. They can see what's happening and that really is kind of key. So if I can say, you know, "This...most green building is in your neighborhood. You can go down the street." There's a school down the street that has all these technologies built-in. It's not scary. It's there. And oh, by the way, they're saving $20,000 a year on their utility bills. That begins to get people's attention. Otherwise, it's sort of some generic system or technology solution that they don't understand. And if you don't understand the science behind it, or what's happening, it can be kind of scary for people, I think.

    JS: Okay. Finally, let's narrow the focus a little. What can the average person do today to reduce energy usage and promote renewable energy?

    Dru: There's a lot of things that people can do in their own homes to reduce energy. The good byproduct of it, it saves you money at the same time. For example, new technologies, such as LED lighting, are now so affordable that we should be putting them in every light socket. The interesting part about that is that if they're replacing an incandescent, they may be using one-tenth of the power. And a side benefit is some of these new bulbs have been projected the last 15 to 20 years. And so, you know, think of never having to replace the light bulbs anymore and having that same service that you wanted before. They're also simple things like making sure you don't have cracks around your doors and reducing heat loss and things like that.

    A lot of utilities also provide services, they'll come out or they have a consultant that will come out and do an audit of your building and tell you where the opportunities are. And many utilities will even subsidize the cost of that and provide financing on your bills, so that you may not see, you know, an upfront cost of doing this. And I know that from the ones I've seen done that people are saving hundreds of dollars over a year. So it's a good opportunity. One of the easy things if you have wind up, unfortunately, having to replace an appliance that dies is to look for labels that are the low energy. Energy Star labeling is on many products now. And that's a good basis for finding products that are in the top tier of energy efficiency.

    JS: Dru, thanks so much for sharing your expertise with us.

    DC: Thanks. I've enjoyed being here today. Thank you for inviting me.

    JS: It's hard to underestimate the impact that sustainable renewable energy could have on the human civilization. The scarcity and the uneven distribution of energy resources worldwide has been the source of endless conflict. Even the nation's fortunate enough to have abundant energy have to deal with the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels. Scientists are hard at work building a cleaner, brighter, more stable energy future. But you don't have to be a scientist to do your part. The future of sustainable energy is both a global concern and individual one.

    Thank you for listening to Science Champions. For more in-depth analysis of the current state of science, join us at And make sure to subscribe to the podcast to catch our next episode! You can subscribe on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, or anywhere you listen to podcasts.

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