Clean Energy in California

Day Four: Inspiration from the Sun
by -- March 14th, 2011

A day exploring the commonalities among nuclear fusion, photovoltaics, and photosynthesis.

Lawrence Livermore National Lab

The Lawrence Livermore National Lab (LLNL), 50 miles east of San Francisco, is one of three National Labs in the country dedicated to “stockpile stewardship,” or ensuring the safety, security, and reliability of U.S. stockpile nuclear weapons. Thankfully, this facility does not keep any weapons on site. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised when we arrived and got the full tour of the science education “Discovery Center,” which is geared towards 5th graders. Truth be told though, this place will bring out the 10 year old in anyone!

After a fun tour of the science center, we met with several folks at LLNL who explained to us the highly sophisticated initiatives at the Lab, which sound like they come straight out of a science fiction novel. The most incredible project that is underway is called LIFE: Laser Inertial Fusion Engine. LIFE is replicating nuclear fusion on earth, a process previous only found on stars. In addition to advancing the frontiers of science, this highly sophisticated technology could perhaps eventually be a “holy cow game changer” in how we produce energy, if it ever became commercially viable. The LLNL website includes the following benefits of LIFE for energy applications:

  • A sustainable, carbon-free source of baseload electricity
  • Security of supply (reducing our reliance on foreign oil imports)
  • No enrichment, no reprocessing, and no high-level radioactive waste
  • Global commercial competitiveness from a U.S.-led solution
  • Compatibility with existing grid infrastructure
  • Intrinsic safety

SunPower

SunPower’s PV solar panels are the most efficient solar technology on the market, providing 50% more power than conventional panels. The company is vertically integrated, meaning they do everything from R&D to manufacture, sales, installation, and maintenance. We got a sneak peak at their office in Richmond which happens to be in a beautifully restored, LEED certified, Ford factory building with stunning views of the San Francisco Bay.  Nicholas School alum, Julie Burlage, arranged for us to meet with folks from SunPower’s policy team, structured finance, and utility group, exposing us to a variety of business functions within the company. Solar PV is now considered a mature industry, but its widespread adoption will be contingent upon future advances in net metering, storage technology, increased efficiency, and of course, competitive price.

Paul Hawken, author of Natural Capitalism

After taking in the views outside of SunPower’s office, we pushed on to Sausalito to meet with a very special speaker, Paul Hawken. Paul is an environmentalist who has advised businesses and governments on environmental sustainability for decades. He is the author of several best-selling books, including Natural Capitalism, and the founder of multiple nonprofits organizations and for-profit companies. His latest venture, OneSun LLC, is working to develop a new solar technique that mimics the photosynthesis process of plants to generate electricity. This biomimicry technology promises to soon provide power cheaper than coal, but he’s not revealing any more trade secret details just yet.

Paul’s general philosophy seems to be one that believes in working alongside of nature, rather than always forcing against it. He emphasizes that modern society is too “yang” and needs more female “yin” qualities if we are to continue co-exist with mother nature. Amen. Our informal  and intimate chat with Paul was a great way to end our trip, as he encouraged us not lose sight of the big picture, and to seek happiness and harmony above all things.

With Paul’s spirit of environmentalism returned to our energy-driven minds, we took a deep breath, and rushed back across the Golden Gate Bridge for a networking event with Nicholas School alums living in the Bay Area.

The Clean Energy Field Trip has opened my eyes to so many exciting technologies, policies, business models. I’ve learned a ton over the past few days and am confident that no matter what direction my studies take me, I have chosen a dynamic industry that leaves no room for boredom.

Special thanks to our staff coordinator, Marianne Drexler, and our TA, Molly Ward, without whom this trip would not have been possible. They truly went above and beyond to make sure that this trip was valuable for students and logistically flawless. Kudos to Marianne and Molly!

 

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