Rocky Mountain Institute experts share insight with Seattle

by Evan Scandling - June 2012

Seattleites were recently treated with the opportunity to learn about some of the hottest topics in clean technology and sustainable development when three reps from the Rocky Mountain Institute – a leading research and education nonprofit focused on energy and resource efficiency – visited town.

While RMI’s experts, including CEO Michael Potts, discussed numerous technologies, industries and solutions -- during the Washington Clean Technology Alliance-hosted event -- three examples of futuristic innovations stuck with me.

The first was the simple, but yet-to-be commercialized concept of wireless induction charging for electric vehicles. Eliminating the need for plug-in charging, this concept allows EVs to merely park over electromagnetic fields in the ground that transfer energy to the vehicle battery. You’ve likely already seen this charging solution in action on a smaller scale: wireless charging pads for smartphones. Seem like a far stretch, given EVs slow market uptake so far? Think again, Nissan and other automakers are aiming to have systems go live in 2014.

Another sooner-than-we-might-expect approach discussed by RMI was IT-based transportation innovations – and more specifically, autonomous cars. The idea is simple: streamline traffic flows, maximize fuel efficiency and reduce accidents by eliminating human error and handing the bulk driving decisions to a computer. Cars will be able to drive closer to each other, travel at more consistent speeds, reduce gridlock, and overall, turn our highways into well-oiled machines. And it’s not far away. Google is getting a lot of press for their driverless car, which recently was approved as street legal in Nevada. Keep your eyes open for unmanned car on Northwest roads in the coming years.

Decentralized clean electricity generation was also a hot topic. Through an on-site solar PV, for example, decentralized generation would be a paradigm-shifting approach for the current energy structure in which utilities dictate the electricity conversation. The overarching question that RMI posed was: How can the regulators that govern utilities create the right incentives to encourage utilities to pursue all cost-effective power sources? Bottom line: if a homeowner’s rooftop solar panel generates electricity at a cost-competitive rate, compared with dirtier energy sources like natural gas, or coal, the utility should have zero reasons to allow solar power to be the choice. Here’s to hoping that paradigm shift occurs sooner than later.

Looking for more thought-provoking conversation on renewables, cleantech and innovation? Consider attending WCTA’s first Annual Meeting, Thursday, June 14 featuring the presidents of UW and WSU discussion the future of Washington state’s cleantech economy.

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