Electrical Engineering Leader Casts Doubt on Biofueled Future

Georgia Tech's Deepak Divan finds that Earth's land and water cannot sustainably support the most ambitious visions for ethanol or biofuels. But he sees great promise in other renewable energy, a greater electrification of global energy, and the accelerated adoption of smart-grid technologies

PHOTO: Georgia Institute of Technology

As a person equally at home in the academic and entrepreneurial worlds, IEEE Fellow Deepak Divan is convinced that we will benefit from the best new technology only if engineers break out of their narrow specializations and address policy issues holistically—taking all relevant economic and political considerations into account. The incoming president of IEEE’s Power Electronics Society, Divan has recently been evaluating various scenarios for meeting long-term global energy needs. He discussed his findings with IEEE Spectrum senior editor William Sweet at the IEEE Conference on Global Sustainable Energy Infrastructure ( Energy 2030), which he largely conceived and organized.

IEEE Spectrum: To judge from the way you designed this conference, you seem to feel that engineers have been too narrowly technology-centric.

DD: Yes. By and large, engineers, especially those on the cutting edge of technology, tend to be focused mainly on technology issues. Today new technology developments cannot move quickly to market unless one understands the interdependencies with policy and economics.

Spectrum: Why did you decide to stretch so far beyond your own specialty and model how a biofueled world would look?

DD: We were exploring how to get to a sustainable energy future and started completely agnostically. My graduate student Frank Kreikebaum and I looked at a lot of specialized studies, and we decided that we needed to put the problem in a global and a social context. We knew that if we told a country like India or China that it would have to slow down economic growth, any proposed solution would be a nonstarter. So a starting condition was that the material aspirations of the new market economies must be met. That implies that people’s needs for food, water, land, and energy have to be taken into account too.

Spectrum: What did you find?

DD: We looked at ethanol and biofuels from corn, switchgrass, biochips, and other materials such as salicornia, a plant that grows in salt water. And we took some of the best available technologies and, in some cases, postulated a two or three times improvement over the next couple of decades. Having gone through the whole calculation, assuming a world population of 9 billion, we discovered that a world that derives all its energy from biofuels is not really sustainable in terms of water and land use. We’d need almost twice the total landmass and twice the total terrestrial rainfall on the planet to grow the crops needed for energy and food. Our projection of a biofueled world in 2030 indicates that we’d be using 31 times the amount of land and 14 times the amount of water we’d consume in a world powered by inorganic fuels and technologies—renewables such as solar photovoltaic and wind, hydro and geothermal, and perhaps nuclear.

Spectrum: When I look at future energy scenarios, it often seems to me that if you postulate that just one thing is the whole answer, it’s always easy to poke holes. Isn’t your projection open to that kind of criticism?

DD: Sure. We don’t object to the notion that biofuels might be part of the answer. But we also modeled hybrid scenarios, for example one in which organic fuels are only used to power transportation, essentially replacing our current use of liquid fossil fuels. But that turned out to fall flat too. It is our feeling that biofuels may turn out to be a niche player, possibly a result of processing biomass used in other applications.

Spectrum: So what is the answer?

DD: The electron economy! It seems to us that the arguments for an inorganically fueled sustainable world are very compelling. As a result, the energy sector is going to be much more thoroughly electrified, innovative renewable energy technologies are going to generate the power, and that power is going to be transported over much smarter grids.

Spectrum: If you had looked at IEEE Spectrum magazine 15 years ago, you would have read a lot about the ability of new electronic devices—from high-power semiconductor devices to GPS—to revolutionize the way the grid is controlled and managed. Today, at a conference like this, a lot of the talk sounds just the same. Why hasn’t the revolution already happened?

DD: [chuckles] The term ”smart grid” can mean a lot of different things. Back then, what people often had in mind was really distribution automation. Then it came to be closely associated with efforts to make grids more robust and reliable. Today, much of the smart grid initiative is about leveraging information technology and installing meters that tell the customer how much electricity is costing in real time, so that the customer or provider can make adjustments to save energy and money.

But look, today’s transmission system is used very ineffectively, with lines being congested, even as alternate paths have spare capacity. In fact, system capacity utilization can be lower than 50 percent even as new lines are requested to handle congestion. So even though it’s so hard to get new transmission built, we’re not making efficient use of what we already have because we’re not controlling it as well as we can.

Spectrum: When you were a professor in Wisconsin, you helped start Soft Switching Technologies, where you initially developed the ”smart wire” concept—devices that can be clamped on power lines to detect overloads and increase impedance so that energy can be rerouted. And here in Georgia you’re involved in a company that’s trying to push light-emitting diodes into wider commercial use. What have you learned about the way companies innovate?

DD: While companies work extremely well when it comes to incremental developments done with market feedback and the voice of the customer, they tend to be less effective when it comes to identifying and pursuing technologies that change the existing paradigm, particularly if the companies are successful at what they do.

I have been very interested in trying to shorten the time lag between the conceptualization and commercialization of breakthrough and disruptive technologies, especially in conservative and slow-moving sectors such as the energy sector. Given the urgency of solving today’s energy problems, this delay is not acceptable. We have been trying to develop a process by which high-risk, high-impact technologies are developed from the outset with a clear understanding of the eventual placement and coupling with the market, interactions with policies, regulatory structures, and, of course, economics. Technologies such as smart wires offer examples of how we have been able to accelerate the acceptance of new technologies into the utility community.

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