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Orientation Program Blog: Power Trip 2019

In September, UC Davis welcomed its third class of Energy Graduate Group students. During their first week on campus, students participated in an orientation program–Power Trip– to learn about the wide variety of energy related research and policy work being conducted at UC Davis and in the Sacramento/Bay area through discussions with researchers and leaders from industry, government, public interest groups, and academia.

Tuesday, September 17

By Tobiah Steckel

Tuesday marked the assembly of the third class of the Energy Graduate Group (EGG). We started with introductions and an icebreaker activity to learn more about the cohort, which made it clear that there was much diversity bound by one unifying goal: achieving a more sustainable future. We then heard from faculty, staff, and students on a variety of programs and opportunities, including the California Independent Systems Operator (ISO), Food-Energy nexus, water efficiency, vehicle research, and entrepreneurship.

After drinking from the “fire hose” of new information, we headed to California ISO in Folsom, CA. The information provided prior to the trip was very helpful in digesting the operations and role of the California ISO, especially for those students not familiar with California. We were afforded the privilege of peeking into the control room during operating hours. The backdrop of this control room was a screen that encompassed an entire wall and contained an intimidating amount of information. The operations in this room involved many aspects of the ISO’s responsibilities–showing the flow of energy throughout the Western region, market price, load demand and much more. Next to the control room, we caught a glimpse of the reliability coordinator. This operation of the California ISO is relatively new, as of 2018, and acts as an authority to multiple balancing authorities across the region.

After visiting the California ISO, we returned to Davis to see two more operations. The first stop was to a microgrid with battery storage operated by Professor Jae Wan Park and his students. The novel aspect of this microgrid was the reuse of old Nissan Leaf batteries as a storage device to harness energy, even when demand is absent, and deploy it when it is needed (i.e. when the sun ceases to shine). Electric vehicle (EV) consumers prefer to maintain their initial range as much as possible, despite the limitations of lithium-ion batteries, thus there is an artificially shortened battery life for many EV batteries. This reuse application helps extend the life of a battery for possibly 7-10 years before the battery’s end of life.

The spirit of innovation was maintained as we ventured to SunPower’s research and development ranch. SunPower boasts the highest efficiency solar panel in the market, though for a slightly higher cost. The environment at the ranch was reminiscent of an intellectual playground, with solar installments and various robots scattered across the property. Though the operations were fairly exposed to us, there were a couple of areas covered up in tarps (for proprietary reasons). This was a fitting way to end the first day–wondering what was under those tarps paralleled the thought of what excitement the future holds for all of the EGG students. Thanks to all the professors, students, faculty and professionals that helped make this day interesting and productive!

Wednesday, September 18

By Rhys Davis

On Wednesday, we hopped in the vans early and headed west to San Francisco. As a rite of passage, we experienced our first foggy, rush hour traffic jam at the Bay Bridge Toll. When we arrived at PG&E headquarters, Michelle van Tijen, Supervisor for Energy Efficiency Residential Programs, showed us around and gave us a safety briefing. Vincent Davis, Senior Director of the Energy Efficiency Programs, and Melody Augustin, Director of Clean Energy Programs, then gave us an introduction to the organization, highlighting the diversity of staff working on energy efficiency and the current programs being developed to help decarbonize the grid while increasing environmental equity. Suncheth Bhat, Director of Clean Energy Transportation, discussed PG&E’s electric vehicle programs, which included plans to roll out more charging stations and continue incentivizing folks to transition to electric vehicles for commutes and commercial transportation. Austin Hastings, Director of Central Operations Support, outlined the future of natural gas in an increasingly decarbonized economy. He discussed ideas to create cleaner natural gas, utilize natural gas for rail and marine transportation, and add grid resiliency using natural gas generators. Matthew Pender, Director of Community Wildfire Safety Program, laid out PG&E’s short-term and long-term strategies for fire prevention which included clearing a larger area around poles, installing stronger poles and more insulated wires, and preventative power shutoffs.

PG&E has several UC Davis alumni, and we were fortunate to sit down and have lunch with a handful of folks working on different energy and customer programs, where we discussed school, the experience of working for PG&E, and our delicious Mediterranean lunch selection. Following lunch, we walked over to the PG&E Trading Floor to meet with Chris McNeece, Director of Short-Term Electric Supply. He gave us a quick rundown of the growing problems of grid stability in the age of renewables and the ever-present “duck curve.” We also were able to witness the process of energy procurement on the trading floor, from long-term to real time.

Following our fearless leader, Ben Finkelor (Executive Director for the Energy and Efficiency Institute), through the streets of San Francisco, we ended up in the offices of Energy+Environmental Economics (E3). Nancy Ryan, a partner at E3, described their mission as an energy consulting company and discussed some of the work that they had performed for clients from regulators to investors. Director Tory Clark and consultants Charlie Duff and Nichole Hanus regaled us with tales from their most recent projects, including a mapping of potential energy futures in Minnesota. Following the presentations, we had a cookie and networking session with consultants at E3. From there, we headed back to the vans and traversed the Bay, the coastal hills, and finally the farmland that led us back to UC Davis’ West Village.

Thursday, September 19

By Kristen Bush

We began the day with an overview of the goals and initiatives used to drive the development UC Davis’ West Village. This was facilitated by the Energy and Efficiency Institute’s Executive Director, Ben Finkelor. As the largest planned “zero net energy” community in the United States, considerations for successful operations included fair billing based on service quality, as well as reduced load and additional service. It was enlightening to witness the sustainable innovation contained within West Village, where many EGG activities are based.

Following the overview of West Village, we had a tour of the campus’ Renewable Energy Anaerobic Digester (READ) led by Ph.D student, Tyler Barzee of the Biological and Agricultural Engineering department. The collaborative nature of the biodigester was evident from its feedstock derived from locations such as the on-campus dining halls, to its partnerships with businesses such as Clean World and Raley’s Supermarkets.

After touring the biodigester, we traveled to the California Lighting Technology Center (CLTC) where we were greeted by Nicole Hathaway, a Senior Development Engineer. Through its expansive partnerships with companies/entities such as Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), Honda, and the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), the CLTC has been instrumental in transforming the impact of applied lighting and energy efficiency technologies. This is evident in their acknowledgement of and adherence to the three elements of healthy lighting design: intensity, spectrum, and duration. Advancements made in the application of circadian lighting for the medical field, as well as the furthering of integrated building controls, highlighted the CLTC’s commitment to commercializing innovative lighting technology.

Our tour of the CLTC was followed by lunch at a nearby park. During this time, we had a brainstorm session with Julia Fan, Annemarie Schaaf, and Ali Loge on recruitment for the EGG program. This section of time was used to reflect on our own experiences with the application process and the ease with which we were able to access different resources.

After lunch, we traveled to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) where we were welcomed by Paul Lau who serves as the Chief Grid Strategy and Operations Officer. Following this welcome was a brief presentation by Josh Rasin, a Project Manager in the Research & Development section. Current projects that he touched on included SkyCool (which cools buildings by the use of deep space bodies), SAN CO2 (an efficient heat pump), and Grid Rabbit (an energy management system used in hotels). Next, Richard Oberg, Manager of Program Delivery Customer Solutions, discussed decarbonization and building electrification through integrated resource plans. He also discussed customers’ habits/behaviors and how these may be changeable through downstream and midstream installation incentives and/or mandates. Lastly, Shiloh Costello, Partnerships Manager of the Sustainable Communities Initiative, led an insightful discussion about the ways in which SMUD can assist underserved communities by contributing to a healthy neighborhood environment, a prosperous economy, and social well-being. Examples of such projects included Habitats for Humanity, mutual housing assistance networks, and Clean Cars for All. It was nice to see such extensive care taken when acknowledging and challenging the negative effects of the stratification of wealth on disenfranchised communities.

Our final visit of the day took us back to campus where we toured the Central Heating and Cooling Plant serviced by UC Davis Facilities. Leading the group was Josh Morejohn, Energy Manager of UC Davis Facilities. We were guided through the intricate system used to maintain the appropriate temperature levels of campus facilities. This included chillers, boilers, and variable frequency drives to move the process along. During the tour, Josh shared that there are plans to shift to a hot water system as opposed to steam. This would increase efficiency and move the facility closer to satisfying the campus’ carbon-neutrality goals.

The tours we participated in allowed us to look at problems concerning energy in a new way. It was interesting to see our research interests take on new forms and meanings. I’m appreciative of the fact that this orientation has allowed us to reflect on our respective journeys through the energy field, and that it has allowed us to see ourselves making a difference in such a changing landscape.

Friday, September 20

By Rhys Davis

On the final day of Power Trip, we started by shipping out to Sacramento and meeting a panel of California Energy Leaders at the California Energy Commission. Participants included Janea Scott, Vice Chair of the California Energy Commission; Genevieve Shiroma, Commissioner at the California Public Utilities Commission; and Steve Cliff, Deputy Executive Officer for the California Air Resources Board. Each participant provided a brief overview of the key role their agency plays in California’s energy future, as well as their unique educational/career paths. They all answered questions about California environmental and energy policy as well as how to advance our careers in the energy field.

After the panel, we headed back to Davis to have lunch with Sharon Tomkins, Vice President of Strategy and Engagement for SoCalGas. She discussed new technologies for creating clean natural gas such as hydrogen gas creation and anaerobic digestion. The group then biked over to Valley Clean Energy in downtown Davis, where Jim Parks, Director of Customer Care and Marketing, shared with us the concept of Community Choice Aggregation as an alternative to investor owned utilities. Valley Clean Energy procures energy for Davis and surrounding Yolo county communities with higher commitments to renewables and a pledge to match or beat PG&E rates. From there, we then biked back over to West Village, where we met Steve Wheeler, Professor of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Design and a resident of Village Homes. Steve gave us a tour of the Village Homes community, one of the earliest adopters of sustainable community planning. He showed us their many shared but intimate spaces, intentionally graded ground for good drainage, and diverse housing designs.

To end the great week, we were treated to dinner at Muir Commons, home of Ben Finkelor. Ben, returning EGG student Greg Miller, and many others prepared a delicious meal of tacos with a cheesecake to finish it off. We mingled with returning EGG students, alumni, and affiliated faculty and staff and decompressed from a wonderful, exhausting introduction to energy through Power Trip.

Student Memories

“The Power Trip helped broaden my perspectives on the energy industry and I made connections at companies which do meaningful work in this industry.”

“My Power Trip experience was the last bit of reassurance that I needed to know that I’m in the right place at the right time. Leading up to the trip, I didn’t know what to expect. I think my previous understanding of the energy field was limited. In a sense, I just didn’t know what I didn’t know. Although the Power Trip was packed with activities, I think that was the best way for us to be able to interact not only with one another, but also with the ever-changing field of energy. It was also comforting to be able to build community among ourselves and with the continuing students. Everyone-including students, staff, and faculty-has been so welcoming and down-to-earth. I feel like I’ve been fully accepted into the EGG family. I’m looking forward to seeing all of us grow together.”

“Power Trip was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet with people on all sides of the fast-changing energy landscape right as we are entering into an environment where we have a chance to use the knowledge and connections gained during the week.”

“The Power Trip experience is a an amazing opportunity to immerse yourself in topics that you will delve deeper into at your time in Davis. Hearing from professionals from a myriad of subjects is a preview for what may be on the other side of grad school.”

“Overwhelmingly exciting!”

For additional photos, please see our flickr album.