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

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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.

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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