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Centering on energy solutions

Marc Lefkowitz  |  04/04/08 @ 3:30pm

Two big donations equalling $5.2 million will help Case's new Great Lakes Center for Energy Innovation make Northeast Ohio a "global leader in renewable energy," the center's director and Case's Dean of the School of Engineering Norman Tien says.

Earlier this year, Cleveland Foundation gave $3.2 million to help build the center ? which will focus on technology for storing renewable energy and on advanced controls to improve the efficiency of the nation's electric grid. Last month's $2 million Maltz Family Foundation/Jewish Community Federation grant will help attract what Tien calls "two top free agents", internationally renowned researchers to make Case a "playoff contender" in the race to develop an renewable energy sector.

Wind and solar power are 'intermittent'-we can't control when they come or go-generating too much power at times to feed back into the power grid. The Center is working with Case's Wright Fuel Cell Group to devise a way to store power, either with fuel cells or new battery types such as those made with sodium sulfur.

A separate $6 million donation to completely redo the Engineering's schools "controls" lab may also help lead to breakthroughs in making the nation's grid "smarter". That gift came from Case grad Larry Sears, who recently sold his company Hexagram, maker of smart meters, for $70 million. Smart meters are being installed in California and provide two-way communication-power producers can manage problems in the system down to a house or block level rather than shutting down half a city, and consumers can purchase power for less by seeing real time data on power prices.

"This is what we want to do with the energy institute; we want to (matriculate) many Larry Sears.'"

The problem with our electric grid-it crashes, causing blackouts, or in normal cases, simply loses loads of power in the transmission-the technology is decades old. Technology hasn't advanced equally across all sectors of the U.S. economy, Tien says.

"Computers, the Internet and wireless have been advancing very quickly, but in a lot of other areas, technology has missed out. If we could improve the grid's efficiency by twenty percent, think of the impact it would have on energy use."

Tien agrees that regulation, such as an aggressive renewable portfolio standard in Ohio (and, presumably, carbon legislation) could be a spur for innovative new technology. Closer to home, he thinks the Center can play a big role in helping Case and University Circle produce power from renewable resources.

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