Eric Wachsman on the Future of Energy Technology

In May 2017 during the 231st ECS Meeting, we sat down with Eric Wachsman, director and William L. Crentz Centennial Chair in Energy Research at the University of Maryland Energy Research Center. The conversation is led by Rob Gerth, ECS’s director of marketing and communications.

Wachsman is an expert in solid oxide fuel cells and other energy storage technologies. He’s the lead organizer of the 7th International Electrochemical Energy Summit, which will take place at the 232nd ECS Meeting in National Harbor, Maryland, October 1st through the 6th. His work in battery safety, water treatment, and clean energy development has gained international attention.

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Below is an excerpt from the conversation:

Rob Gerth: What are the challenges, or even the benefits, of working in energy technology in the current political climate? What challenges does it present for you and for all scientsts?

Eric Wachsman: Well, the previous administration was very favorably inclined towards energy research and we saw unprecedented increases in the funding for energy research under the Obama administration. The current administration actually zeros out major programs like ARPA-E, which I think is absolutely disastrous. Luckily, Congress doesn’t agree with the current administration’s budget priorities, and so we are hoping right now that the Congress is the sanity check on this and that funding will continue–at least comparable to what it is in the 2016 budget, and hopefully not much less than that. The reality is that the demand for energy is continuing and it’s not going to go away. If the funding is not there within the U.S., the funding is going to be there in other countries. All the investments that occurred on the previous administration to really develop breakthroughs in technology will result in manufacturing of the technologies being some place else rather than the United States.

The other aspect of it is that because of the focus on climate change and the acceptance of that world wide, countries are investing and companies are investing. So we may have to rely more on the private sector within the United States for funding again external to the United States if the funding in the U.S. does not keep up.

RG: If you had to make a prediction, how far away are we from seeing the change from a fossil fuel based economy to a renewable energy landscape? Where do you think we are on the scale?

EW: So we are in that middle of the change. It’s a transition period.  But you’re already seeing what’s called grid parity. [Renewables] are comparable to conventional technologies in terms of cost. It just depends upon where. One of the things you’re going to see a change to is distributed generation, distributed storage, and distributed resources that is going to vary across the country and across the world depending upon what the resources they have at that location.

So, we’ve been in the past, with the centralized power generation as the status quo with large scale grids deploying that electricity across the country. And I think that’s going to be the shift. One, because the centralized power results in inefficiencies in the grid, a loss, and transmission losses. The fact is that the grid needs to be upgraded. So now the economists are going to look at if it makes more sense to have distributed power generation and not have to redo the grid or are we going to have to put in the money to do the grid? Again, getting back to the politics there, there are discussions about a major infrastructure bill. Well, infrastructure is bridges and roadways. But infrastructure is also electrical grid. And so that’s got to be part of that discussion. Are we going to redo the gird in the United States and in other countries around the world?

If you look at the developing world, they don’t have that grid. So for them, the distributed generation makes more sense. Because that grid is non-existing infrastructure. And again, that’s another part of it. We tend to be U.S.-centric in a lot of our discussion. But the fact is, the developing world is where the population is and that’s where the rapid growth is going to be. So we were talking about sort of American politics. Well, it has nothing to do with Africa and other countries where they just don’t have anything or they have very limited resources. And they’re going to deploy more of these distributed generations. So again, it goes back to are we going to be manufacturing technologies and selling to those countries or are we going to let that go to some other country?

RG: People take the grid for granted. But bascially, when you see all of a city blacked out, it’s because they’re all depending on basically the same distribution system that comes from one particular point, right?

EW: Right. So we’ve had major blackouts in the past. We will continue to have major blackouts. Unless there’s a major infrastructure investment on the grid in the United States, it’s going to continue to happen. The demand is only increasing. And the question is: Are we going to go with more distributed resources? The other aspect is, again, there is more solar and there is more wind. And that is the biggest growth factor on what’s being deployed. There’s decreasing amount of reliance on coal. There’s a major shift that’s gone to natural gas. But natural gas can be more distributed generation. The solar and wind are even more so. And the solar and wind again, they result in transients on the grid which have to be accommodated either by natural gas peaking, by turning on a turbine when necessary, or by storage.

Storage really comes back to that that’s the linchpin in everything. If we want to have more solar and wind, we have to have more storage. If we want to deploy more electric vehicles, we have to have storage. And so the cost of batteries has to come down. And the performance of batteries has to improve.

RG: In moving in this direction, will the future enegery landscape include a combination of fuel cells and batteries?

EW: I can’t pick between batteries and fuel cells; it’s like trying to tell me to pick between my children. They both have potential and then we need both. You have to generate electricity and you have to store electricity. And so, we’ve developed technologies for each of those and I’m very happy to see both of these things moving forward from the research lab into the commercial sector.

RG: Let’s take a mintue to talk about the upcoming 7th International Electrochemical Energy Summit, which will take place at the 232nd ECS Meeting in October. Tell me a little bit about what’s happening at that meeting.

EW: During the 7th International Electrochemical Energy Summit, we’re actually going to have three interrelated symposia. We’ll have the third incarnation of the Energy-Water Nexus symposia. We have speakers from the National Science Foundation, Department of Energy, Electric Power Research Institute, the former head of ARPA-E, as well as one of the scientists from my university, who’s been focused on the integration of climate change and how that’s impacting food. And then, we’re also going to have a focus on sensors for food and water and another one on human health. So again, it’s a broader focus on sustainability. I’m going to organize this Energy-Water Nexus. We are going to have a panel of these experts and funding agencies, which will go through some of the programs and the needs for addressing the situation and then that’ll be followed on by a couple days of talks on energy-water nexus related research. Each of those other of the three symposia will also then continue out throughout the rest of the week.

RG: You’ve been with ECS since about 1989. Give me a little reflection on what the Society means to you.

EW: ECS has been my home. It’s where my research interests are. And the way that the Society has set up with its divisions and things of that nature, it’s allowed me to be much more active in participation than I could have in any other Society. And I really love coming to ECS meetings; I go to every single one. Both because of the science that’s going on, but also because of the relationships I developed with people. When I come to these meetings I’m not just meeting collaborators, I’m meeting friends. This is where we can come together and I can see them and we can talk about what’s going on. Not only in science, but in life, and our families, and everything else. So ECS is my home and I’m proud to be here.

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