When Hurricane Sandy struck the East Coast in 2012, the massive storm damaged the complex energy and water infrastructure that holds parts of the coast together. Homes flooded, trees fell and many communities lost electricity. Municipalities issued advisories for residents to boil water after supplies became contaminated.
Energy and environmental experts gathered at Princeton University Nov. 11 for the Princeton E-ffiliates Partnership's Fifth Annual Meeting to grapple with fundamental questions about how to build a stronger infrastructure and propose 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, board chairman, president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey energy company Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG), who gave the event's keynote address.
The E-ffiliates annual meeting featured talks and panels on leading-edge energy and environmental solutions and the challenges of climate change. The daylong event at Princeton's Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment was attended by more than 200 guests, including representatives from more than 18 companies and nonprofit 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.
"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 and 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."
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 Hurricane Sandy struck New Jersey.
PSEG is proposing steps to implement a business model that encourages energy efficiency and is 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 cables, and trimming trees that may threaten power lines, Izzo said. For clean-energy resources, PSEG has invested more than $1 billion to construct 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," Izzo said.
Sankaran Sundaresan, the Norman John Sollenberger Professor in Engineering and professor of chemical and biological engineering at Princeton, 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 energy-intensive processes such as desalination.
"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 said 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 the 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 Southwest," said Stark on why these research projects are needed in drought-stricken regions.
José 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 the metabolic engineering of yeast. Tyler Van Buren, a research specialist in mechanical and aerospace engineering, 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.
Elke Weber, the Gerhard R. Andlinger Professor in Energy and the Environment at the Andlinger Center and professor of psychology and public affairs, discussed climate change and subtle ways to get humans to perform actions beneficial to the environment and to conserve energy, even when it may not be in their immediate best interest.
"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 information from the United Nations and other sources showing that climate change is happening and that people should preserve natural resources.
Weber argued that organizations trying to influence the climate-change debate and craft environmentally friendly policies should not use scare tactics but provide solutions, make greener choices the default option, and focus on behavioral changes that encourage more sustainable choices.
As an example of promoting behavioral 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.
Weber's 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.