Thursday, May 2, 2013

Tracking the Evolution of Sustainable Energy

I never thought about the process of invention until I met Deborah Strumsky.

One learns early in their childhood that the wheel was invented and that it was a big thing. One learns later on that the car was invented and that that was a big thing, too. One naturally makes the logical connection that the invention of the car was enabled by the previous invention of the wheel. But one never studies the relationships and linear association between the two points of innovation.

Deborah Strumsky, a professor of Public Policy and Geography and Earth Sciences at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, is doing just that. She has received a grant of a million dollars from the United States government’s Department of Energy in conjunction with professors from Oxford University and Arizona State University to pursue studies in the construction and implementation of a cost optimization computer model for solar energy innovation.

Dr. Deborah Strumsky.

This sounds complicated, and it might be. But it once understood, one realizes the potential of the project at hand.

She describes it to me as a lightboard. Imagine a board blanketed in rows upon rows of small lights. Imagine that each light represents an invention and that upon this light board every invention in history is represented by its own little light. She explains that most people think that inventions happen randomly, without a logical progression. One light here in the middle, one light in the top right corner, and one light nearer the bottom of the board.

She explains that her research has proven this to be incorrect. Inventions and patents follow each other logically. The wheel must be invented- this is one light. Soon after, it is realized that the wheel can be attached to an axle and that this makes things easier to move. This is another light, right beside the initial invention of the wheel. As new inventions are made that are predicated upon those previous inventions, the corresponding lights are activated. Soon the lightboard is not an amalgamation of inventions that seem to occur randomly. In contrast, after an initial invention is established, innovations upon that initial invention follow suit in a logical progression.

Why is this significant, you might ask?

It is important, Strumsky notes, because if there is a logical progression in the pattern of invention, there is a pattern that can be established. If a pattern can be established, then perhaps invention can be predicted, within reason. She says that there are types of inventions that are impossible to predict, inventions that are completely unprecedented and new- things like internet, which revolutionized the twenty-first century. Strumsky acknowledges that inventions like these cannot be predicted. She notes, however, that most can be predicted- things like the evolution of phones to smartphones, from smartphones to touchpads, from touchpads to Google Glass.

She then explains how this can be applied to the cost optimization model of energy sectors, the research for which she has received the grant.

If invention can be predicted, then new means of energy production can be predicted as well, in both the clean energy sector and the nonrenewable energy sector. If these can be predicted and the cost predicted, the energy production potential of any given region can be applied and compared to see which energy use would be the most optimal per cost over an extended, pre-determined period of time.

For example, North Carolina is considering fracking, a means of shale oil mining, as a new energy source. Ms. Strumsky would apply this computer model to the state of North Carolina, comparing the long and short-term costs of fracking to the long and short-term costs of other energy sectors and their potential innovations- clean (solar, geothermal, wind, and water), coal, oil, and off-shore drilling, for example. After comparing these costs (and by extension, profits), the state of North Carolina would then be able to determine the optimal course of energy sustainability per cost per method, and subsequently implement the one that is best. The grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, however, focuses primarily on the application of solar energy, a sector they see potential in as the 21st century marches forward and oil becomes costly, in many more ways than just the four dollars you now pay per gallon at the pump.

This holds potential in other areas, too. One could apply it to developing states and sectors to develop sustainable infrastructure in conjunction with economic development. One could apply it to a smaller area or a larger one. One could apply it eventually to other sectors, not just those that are environmentally-oriented.

Solar Panels.

The model is in the beginning stages right now and is still developing in the massive computer systems that Ms. Strumsky has been given access to in Arizona. She laughs as she tells me that her computer in her office, an old PC with a simple standard hard drive, has crashed multiple times because of the volume of information she has asked it to process. She hopes that, once the model is completed, the public will be receptive to the idea.

The public might or might not agree. To me, however, the potential of this research seems to hold unlimited possibility and application. 


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