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Institute for Energy Efficiency Makes Its Case

Lois Capps Gets Crash Course on Energy-Saving Innovations at UCSB


Representative Lois Capps stopped by UCSB on Tuesday to catch an hour-long presentation by three august representatives of the three-year-old Institute for Energy Efficiency (IEE). Dr. John E. Bowers, the institute’s director; David H. Auston, Executive Director of the Center for Energy Efficient Materials; and Dan Morse, a renowned professor of molecular genetics and biochemistry and inventor, provided reasonable hope that the world’s insatiable appetite for energy will not turn the planet into a sweltering underwater Inferno, that is, so long as the federal government keeps funding their research.

It turns out that they didn’t have much work to do as Capps assured them of her desire to bring funding to her district, “especially in a recession.” Still, Auston made his point when he compared the amount that the United States spends on subsidies for oil and gas ($12 billion) to the amount it spends on energy research ($5 billion). He also added that countries like Japan and China are making U.S. investments in alternative energy technology look like chump change.

The IEE comprises six different research areas: lighting, electronics and photonics (the use of light in applications typically associated with electronics), building and design, production and storage, economics, and policy.

The professors shared a sampling of the innovations hatched in UCSB laboratories. Among them were solar film cells now produced by the company Kanarka, originally located in Goleta, but now occupying the old Polaroid facilities in Massachusetts. These camera film-like strips of solar cells can be used to charge electronic devices like cell phones or to tint windows while storing energy at the same time.

The IEE has spawned several start-up companies, many of them local. It has also recently led to the creation of a nonprofit called Unite to Light, which is hoping to shortly send 2,000 solar-powered reading lamps to Ghana where the extremely dirty fuel of kerosene is still used for lighting.

John Bowers, director of the IEE, works on the marriage of silicon chips with fiber optic technology. In essence, the addition of fiber to electric chips will allow the different parts of the chip to communicate, an increase in efficiency that obviates the need for faster, energy-consuming chips. Intel hopes to apply such technology into a single USB-like output in personal computers that will combine the functions of all the separate connectors—video, audio, data transfer—on current computers.

Such technology would also curb the energy drain of our burgeoning Internet use. For instance, all those photos you keep uploading to Facebook require some serious server storage which, in turn, emit some serious heat. According to Bowers, the Internet accounts for at least 3 percent of our current energy consumption, but that number doubles every 18 months.

Internet-related computing is one of the key targets of energy-efficiency. Although emission-free vehicles have dominated the public discourse as an antidote to carbon-induced global climate change, there are both more threatening areas of energy-consumption and easier targets to tackle. Among those are buildings that consume 39 percent of total U.S. energy and the bulk of electricity. An easy fix is the addition of LED lights. Further, researchers affiliated with the IEE are working on smart building technology. Such technology would enable buildings to automatically adjust (lighting, heating and cooling, shade) to external and internal conditions.

The obvious advantage to investing in research at universities, Auston argued, is that it leads to breakthrough technologies, but more importantly, by exposing students to those technologies, it leads to tangible economic dividends. Those students bring their knowledge to the workplace and create new workplaces of their own, which, in turn, create jobs.

Capps was engaged with the presentation, sharing her concern about the environment and her desire to create jobs in the alternative energy sector. She said her job of advocating for energy efficiency was easier in coastal California than a colleague of hers on the Energy and Commerce Committee who lives in coal country. She also mentioned the challenge of dealing with colleagues who “don’t even believe that global warming is the real deal.”

After Capps was whisked away by her entourage when her hour-long virtual tour of the IEE ended, Bowers admitted that he didn’t expect his congressmember to bring a windfall of new funding to the university. “Presentations like this are about keeping policymakers educated,” Bowers said, affirming that it is important for those making legislative decisions to have a grasp of the current state of science and technology.

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