February 07, 2011
By: by Eric Anderson, Business Editor, Times Union
Ian Sun remembers how isolated he felt in the Midwest.
"Years ago I had a job in Iowa," the electric power engineering expert recalled last week. "If I wanted to talk to anyone about what I do, I'd have to travel 30 or 40 miles."
Things today are different for Sun, now the director of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute's Center for Future Energy Systems.
"There's a lot of energy in this area," he said as he counted the assets in the Capital Region's expanding cluster of companies, research and academic institutions, and government agencies, all involved in producing, managing and storing energy.
For the Capital Region, this wealth of expertise presents opportunities for job creation and economic development.
The energy sector here is well established. When President Obama was in town two weeks ago, he visited General Electric Co.'s steam turbine and generator manufacturing plant, a century-old business that continues to thrive in downtown Schenectady.
But a short distance away on the same campus, GE has established its renewable energy headquarters, and an advanced battery manufacturing plant will soon open in another nearby building.
Batteries were among the technologies explored at a symposium Thursday afternoon at the College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering, which drew more than 150 people to the University at Albany.
CNSE has established a reputation as a world leader in semiconductor research, and Sematech International, the research consortium of global companies, now calls Albany home.
The model established at CNSE that draws together academia, government and business in a cooperative effort to solve common challenges is now being applied to energy research.
"It's all coming together nicely with what the federal government is trying to do, which builds on and copies what we did with nanotechnology companies," said Alain Kaloyeros, CNSE's chief executive.
But local clean energy research entrepreneurs aren't the only ones to recognize the Capital Region's potential.
Businesses in California's Silicon Valley, the state of Colorado, and Austin, Texas, all see a future here, with commercialization leading to locally based manufacturing and the job and wealth creation that come with it.
But the Capital Region's relatively long history in the business has been a benefit.
Public organizations, from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and the New York State Foundation for Science, Technology and Innovation, to the New York Independent System Operator are here, as are corporate research centers for General Electric and IBM, among others.
The Independent System Operator, originally the New York Power Pool, was created after the November 1965 Northeast power failure to keep the electric grid operating reliably.
Today, it's working to incorporate the power produced by wind turbines, solar panels and other renewable sources into a grid that operates at far higher voltages while figuring out how to store the excess power that's generated when the wind is blowing or the sun shining.
Much of the research into so-called distributive power and smart grids is happening locally, at RPI in Troy, where Sun and other researchers have developed a test bed that simulates the power grid and other techniques to simulate the production of solar and wind energy.
Meanwhile, CNSE and GE are working on ways to make solar collectors far more efficient. CNSE's skills in manipulating materials at the nanoscale level are an advantage here.
"My vision, what we have to do, is basically recreate the success we've had applying nanotechnology to the semiconductor industry, applying nanotechnology to energy," said Pradeep Haldar, head of nanoengineering and director of CNSE's Energy and Environmental Technology Applications Center.
"It's the investment New York State has made in nanotechnology that serves as the foundation for clean energy," said Steve Janack, spokesman for CNSE.
Much of the funding for these and other local efforts comes from NYSERDA and NYSTAR, as well as the federal Department of Energy.
"If you're on Long Island and you want to talk to NYSERDA, you've got to get in the car and come up here," said F. Michael Tucker, president and CEO of the Albany-based Center for Economic Growth.
Newer technologies already are creating hundreds of jobs. GE's renewable energy headquarters employs more than 650 people, while the advanced battery plant will employ 350 when fully operational.
"A lot of the work for advancing that technology came out of the research center here," said Glen Merfeld, platform leader for energy storage technologies at the GE Global Research Center in Niskayuna. "Energy storage in general is key to making better use of our energy resources."
Kaloyeros says the Department of Energy is seeking a site for a new solar energy development center, and that the Capital Region is one of three finalists.
His long-term goal has been to bring the companies here to commercialize the breakthroughs, creating jobs for the local economy.
The variety of companies and institutions already is attracting talented researchers from other areas.
"You get the intellectual stimulation, the stimulation of ideas," observed Tucker. "The real interaction comes after the programs, when people get their glass of wine or beer and talk about what's really going on at their companies."
That's what happened Thursday at CNSE. After talking about batteries and flywheels, the crowd headed to the rotunda, where hors d'oeuvres and wine awaited.
The real business of the day was about to begin.
Read more: http://www.timesunion.com/default/article/Leading-the-charge-999165.php#ixzz1DHgsb7kZ