January 3, 2017

Over the past decade, clean energy innovation has come a long way, delivering sizable efficiency gains and cost reduction across the energy spectrum. What technologies hold the greatest promise to continue the trend of increasing effectiveness while prices go down? Experts indicate that, given the interconnectedness, pursuing a combination is best.

“The boundaries between transportation, buildings, and renewable power are disappearing,” said David Friedman, the Energy Department’s Acting Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. Cities can use buildings for energy storage, for example, to help make the grid more flexible.

Friedman spoke during a roundtable discussion alongside 20 representatives from energy-focused organizations convened in Chicago by the Clean Energy Trust, the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, Business Forward, and UI LABS.

The discussion was held at the UI LABS Innovation Center, home to City Digital—a public-private partnership that brings together companies and universities with government agencies and startups to address challenges within cities. City Digital’s focus areas include energy and smart buildings; an active pilot employs sensors and data analytics to monitor building occupancy and optimize energy usage.

Investing in clean energy innovation means committing to technology improvements to reduce the cost of renewable sources—like wind and solar—along with batteries and LEDs. It means strengthening the country’s innovation ecosystem to help attract more entrepreneurs and innovators to tackle our energy challenges—not just apps for faster pizza delivery, Friedman said. That includes building closer relationships between industry and national labs, as well as finding creative ways to work within urban environments.

The energy revolution is impacting manufacturing as well. Friedman’s agency has worked with other federal departments and the Manufacturing USA network of institutes on clean energy initiatives, such as 3-D printed molds for wind turbine blades. The Digital Manufacturing and Design Innovation Institute, City Digital’s manufacturing-focused sister lab, has engaged in similar work. Through a recently completed project, a team within the Institute developed a software suite to streamline wind turbine blade design, creating a way for smaller turbine manufacturers to enter the market. Other projects are enabling more sustainable manufacturing processes by increasing production efficiencies and reducing waste.

In addition to discussing how to link renewables to efficiency, new technologies to testbeds, and innovators across the public and private sectors to one another, the roundtable participants touched on the importance of digital connections.

“City Digital takes the guesswork out of infrastructure investment decisions by collecting data not just from one pilot site, but from many,” said Elle Ramel, City Digital’s Chief of Staff. “Being ‘connected’ in a digital sense can optimize the use of energy and other resources where we live, work, and play.”

As clean energy improvements take hold across the country, in our backyard, and even in the cloud, one principle holds true: They’re all connected.