• April 11, 2018

Spitballing energy challenges and potential solutions at the speed of light

Michael Webber is one fast talker—but in a good way. (Maybe even in a great way.)

Webber keynoted the energy and water track of the Oracle Industry Connect 2018 conference today, tossing out great jokes and amazing insights in energy, water, oil, gas, electric vehicles and more—pretty much the entire energy/water nexus, as we like to call it.

Webber, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Texas at Austin by trade, is also the deputy director of the Energy Institute, Josey Centennial Professor in Resources, and co-director of the Clean Energy Incubator at the Austin Technology Innovator. And all of that can be summed up this way: He’s spent a lot of time thinking about energy, technology and how they make sense together (and where we could, perhaps, use a little more sense in the equation, too).

In an amazing fast stream of concepts, Webber name-dropped Rick Smalley (the much revered discoverer of the buckyball); talked water, energy and toilets; rapid-fired consumption and waste data and showed us all what President Trump would look like with a man bun.

He even told us a very interesting story involving a tea-kettle created energy spike in demand in Britain tied to the popular soap opera “East Enders.” In other words, he humanized the data behind all this infrastructure we deal with as an industry.

Webber centered his discussion, actually, around Smalley’s list of ten “grandest human challenges.” What’s at the top of those varied 10? Take a guess. (Yep. It’s us. It’s energy.)

Despite that desperate (and sometimes dire) energy challenge, Webber noted that, in reality, actual energy tech changes very slowly.

“The entire modern global economy is running on old technology,” he lamented to the  utility executive audience. Even electric vehicles—something we, as an industry, tend to think of as high-tech and cutting edge—was first thought of in 1839.

“It’s like there are no new ideas under the sun in this business,” he added. “But,I hope you have some. And, if you do, let’s get those adopted soon.”

With the challenges in mind, Webber offered his solution in the form of an Aesop’s fable—that of the reeds vs. the oak tree. (In an abbreviated summary: the oak is teasing the reeds that they bend and he doesn’t, that they are pushovers and he wasn’t—until a big wind comes along and topples the oak, but the reeds endure.)

He likened the energy industry to the ecosystem of that fable—that you need both the reliability of the oak and the flexibility of the reeds. You need power that is a heavy-duty powerhouse and things that can adjust and make up when that powerhouse isn’t as strong as it could be.

Webber’s biggest suggested “action item”: switching our industry to a load-following mindset and getting away from our supply-following mindset. And how do we weather the time it takes to make that shift, you ask?

We use classics: data, IoT and conservation, of course. 


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