There’s no doubt we live in an amazing time, with technology available at our fingertips to ease some of the world’s most vexing problems. But it’s also evident that having more, newer and bigger devices and equipment comes with costs. One is soaring global energy consumption.
Finding better ways to cut energy use has many advantages, from addressing environmental concerns to decreasing the need for new power plants. Conserving energy extends equipment life, reducing replacement and maintenance costs.
Fortunately for Idaho, the U.S. Department of Energy recently renewed a five-year, $1.25 million grant that helps provide in-depth energy assessments of manufacturing plant sites in the Intermountain West. The assessments are a collaboration by Boise State University and the University of Idaho, under the direction of John Gardner, a Boise State professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering and leader of the Center for Advanced Energy Studies’ Energy Efficiency Research Institute.
Run through Boise State, the regional Industrial Assessment Center offers suggestions for improving energy efficiency, preventing pollution, minimizing waste and increasing productivity. The assessments are free of charge to the companies.
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The center is one of 28 DOE-supported IAC assessment centers nationwide. On average, their recommendations save a plant more than $55,000 per year and repay investments in 12-18 months. Idaho’s IAC shoots for a 10 percent to 20 percent savings on energy.
Gardner works with University of Idaho engineering professor Dev Shrestha, the North Idaho IAC regional director, and about 15 students from both universities at a given time to provide assessments to about 20 small- and medium-sized businesses in the region each year. The businesses include dairies, food processors and companies that build manufactured homes.
The program also serves as a training ground for the next generation of energy engineers who must understand industrial systems.
In the first five years of the initial DOE grant, 69 students provided energy assessments for 90 facilities in Idaho, Washington, Montana, Utah and Alaska.
The students are mostly juniors and seniors studying mechanical engineering. They get hands-on experience in thermodynamics, particularly in the design and function of the boilers used in many plants. Many students are eligible for a certificate from the Department of Energy after working with six clients.
Students meet with the management of an eligible company and ask questions, tour the plant, ask more questions and then write a report with recommendations and tips on how to implement them. The company is then contacted again in about a year for feedback.
If you’re interested in obtaining an assessment, visit https://iac.university/.
Meanwhile, universities are going well beyond assessments to lower energy consumption or improve energy generation. One example is Gardner’s research into the smart grid, a new take on the process of delivering power to our homes or businesses. The smart grid allows for two-way communication, allowing the utility to respond to real-time needs of a customer and vice versa.
Throughout the country, electric utilities have programs to reduce demand on the grid when usage is high. Idaho Power’s voluntary AC Cool Credit program, which briefly turns air-conditioning compressors off at critical times, is one example. Gardner is looking to extend the concept to allow electrical components to be turned off at peak times and turned on when electricity is plentiful. If properly coordinated, these approaches can alleviate much of the stress that wind and solar generators put on the grid.
In addition, Said Ahmed-Zaid, a Boise State associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, has been working to develop a new electrical grid voltage-regulating device. This innovation could potentially save thousands of kilowatt hours of electricity while improving the performance and reliability of the network.
Other faculty researchers are developing new materials that are more energy-efficient. For instance, Boise State physicist Paul Simmonds is exploring how to use quantum dots — a family of semiconductor nanostructures — to create a device to harvest waste heat and turn it into useful electricity. Similarly, engineering faculty member Yanliang Zhang is developing devices to turn waste heat to electricity to help operators monitor the harsh environment of a nuclear power plant. And engineering faculty member Janelle Wharry is studying how irradiation affects the structure of certain metal alloys, in an attempt to improve safety at nuclear power plants.
Finding new and better ways to manage our precious energy resources will enhance the quality of life for all of us.
Mark Rudin is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State University, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices. He writes monthly about scientific discovery and economic development in Idaho and beyond.