Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dan Reicher from Google Spoke at Yestermorrow

Last night I attended Dan Reicher's illuminating lecture at the Yestermorrow Design Build School in Warren. He spoke to a overflow crowd of summer program students, area professionals and interested public. He was there as part of Yestermorrow's weekly lecture series.

As director of Energy and Climate Initiatives at Google, former Assistant Secretary of Energy under the Clinton Administration and team member on the Obama transition team he offered a wide ranging yet extremely well-informed discussion of global energy issues, how they're connected to our local context in Vermont (He used to live in the Mad River Valley) and how Google intersects with them. He participated on helping originate key ideas in the Economic Stimulus Package pertaining to Energy and spoke also about the Climate legislation before congress right now.

He had some interesting quotes for slides, one of them from Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel who said, "You never want a serious crisis to go to waste". He spoke to the potential for rapid transformation and change given our current systemic economic problems and how the economic stimulus package provides dramatic opportunities and funding sources to drive energy conservation and efficiency R&D to examine alternative and promising energy fuel options. What's interesting I think is how subtle and imperceptible stimulus related change is to us in Vermont. What we see is heightened activity on our local roads and highways and read about awards of grants and programs to non-profits in affordable housing, agricultural economy and health centers among a few examples. Dan spoke how the arrival of the Obama Administration really is changing the energy policy game in Washington. Their arrival and focus on these issues has released eight years of pent-up demand where alternative energy sources, energy efficiency and other key factors were routinely level funded and poorly supported by the former administration. Things really are different now and it's evident from where he sits.

As Director of energy and climate initiatives at Google, Dan is participating and shepherding some interesting projects along. One project relates to plug-in electric hybrids. He discussed Google's plug-in electric car initiatives where they modified Toyota Prius' aftermarket with additional batteries and installed plug in stations at 'Googleplex'. They made the cars readily available to staff to use as they wish. The gas mileage results were astounding for typical everyday driving at 93 MPG (Done by professionally trained drivers to model typical behavior) Googlers got 73 MPG in average googleplex short trips of 1-2 miles per day. Google envisions in 10 to 15 years possibly millions of such vehicles on the roads. Along the way, battery and electric charging technologies will in his mind no doubt improve.

He also spoke about Enhanced Geothermal Systems which I'd never heard of before. This is the kind of system which takes advantage of the earth's natural heat well below the earth's crust, kilometers below the surface. Water is pumped into the wells and run into the hot areas below and channeled back to the surface to produce electricity. He showed slides displaying the Geothermal energy potential in the U.S. at 3KM, 5KM and 10 KM below the surface. It's a promising technology getting lots of publicity and funding right now. Some issues though were enhanced seismicity (meaning prevalence for earthquakes) related to drilling deep wells although he said this is similar to oil and natural gas drilling where similar issues exist.

An over-arching theme emerged from this where he said virtually in any emerging and existing energy technology there are environmental and societal downsides which must be carefully considered. This is a pervasive theme and it's up to society and political systems to debate together the cost-benefit equations to determine the contingent 'right' answers. He did argue which ever alternative technologies are successful they would be working together and there was no magic new single transformation technology out there. No matter if it's wind, solar, enhanced geothermal, wave energy, traditional oil and gas extraction, bio-mass or cellulose fuel sources there are down-sides in to all of them. He share an anecdote about how public opinion is fickle in regards to this. He reminded us about the recent devastation near a coal plant where coal sludge literally despoiled an entire valley down south last summer and how public opinion didn't seem to get ruffled. This is in comparison to the passionate debate about Nuclear Energy and nuclear power plants and fear of plant accidents. You have two kinds of technologies both effecting the environment and people potentially disastrously with inconsistent concern and fears.

He spoke about the promise and obstacles facing deployment of industrial scale renew ables and plugging them into the smart grid. The biggest issue he said the smart grid effort faces is getting power lines to hook into future and existing generation sites. The permitting and entitlement process for power-lines is lengthy and potentially slowing of the roll-out of large scale generation. The other side to the equation is in the meanwhile, micro-grid power generation such as residential and small scale wind, solar, geothermal are very easy to deploy and likely will find success in the market place simultaneously to the slower development of the smart-grid and power transmission. Thus for all of us here in Vermont and elsewhere committed to small scale projects this is a great sign of promising times ahead.

The last thing I want to mention which was important I think to me and perhaps most importantly is Energy use of Google search at data centers behind our everyday searches. Dan mentioned how the search marketplace is extremely competitive and aware of its energy footprint and that great strides have been made to dramatically reduce power usage levels at Data Centers both at Google and with other search providers. He emphasized how Google really is focused here and as well, more importantly he hopes, on the bigger energy picture. He tried to convey how Google is committed to being involved in large scale energy related projects going forward. I think he did that very well.

Thanks Dan and Yestermorrow for a fascinating looking into global and local energy issues!
(I included an image from Google's 2006 Earthday logo to spice up the post)

1 comment:

Kate said...

Steve, thanks for coming to the lecture at Yestermorrow and providing a well written, concise review of the talk. For those of you who missed it, in a few days we'll have it uploaded to our video site at: