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UC San Diego: A ‘living laboratory’ for green energy

   /   Jun 3rd, 2010Design, News, Tech

Byron Washom, director of strategic energy initiatives, on campus at UCSD

Growing up in the San Diego suburb of University City, the University of  California, San Diego (UCSD) campus felt like a second backyard.  As a kid, the main perks of my proximity were the University’s big grassy fields, open basketball courts, and, of course, a forest with a Talking Tree.  As I got older, the school’s Supercomputer Center, well-funded engineering school, and futuristic library (not to mention its lack of a football team) were reminders of UCSD’s distinction as a world-renowned research institution.  But what I didn’t know until yesterday was that UCSD’s 1,200-acre campus now generates 80% of its own electricity.

The catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf has refocused global attention on the urgency of developing alternative fuels. UCSD has been a pace setter in this area for decades. One of its researchers, Charles David Keeling, was the first scientist to track atmospheric carbon dioxide levels in 1958.  In recent years, the school has turned that research into action.  Step one was the construction of a massive cogeneration power plant, which turns heat given off by normal energy generation into steam and electricity.  Next was the installation of a network of solar panels, including panels that track the sun’s movement across the sky. And now UCSD is nearing completion of a fuel cell and energy storage system that will convert methane gas into electricity.

The school wants to become a “living laboratory,” a nexus for collaboration between research scientists, facilities and construction managers, private utility companies, and green technology entrepreneurs—all critical stakeholders in our nation’s efforts to reduce consumption and increase sustainability.  Working towards a national model for the development of new energy technology, the school created an Office of Strategic Energy Initiatives, and appointed solar energy pioneer Byron Washom to run it.  Washom has the ambition to match his mandate:  “The only thing we’re looking at, at the campus, are quantum improvements,” he said. “It’s not just to install the next incremental step; it’s to put in the next breakthrough. What I’m doing with my colleagues is going to have a global impact.”

Photo: Los Angeles Times

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