Silicon Valley says bring on the smart energy

150 150 Justin Ewers

The smart grid is coming. (Photo Credit: Avinash Kaushik)

For Silicon Valley leaders, the challenge was irresistible. As California has taken a leading role in promoting energy efficiency and reducing greenhouse gases, regional leaders have scrambled to find ways to help businesses and residents alike meet new state goals to reduce emissions and rely more on renewable energy.

Two years ago, a collaboration-oriented nonprofit in the heart of the state’s high-tech capital, Joint Venture Silicon Valley, saw this as an opportunity to demonstrate how “smart energy” could be done right. Dozens of individual Silicon Valley firms were already experimenting with an array of new and emerging energy technologies—from equipping their buildings with solar photovoltaic panels and electric vehicle stations to testing energy storage systems. Cities like Sunnyvale and Mountain View were busy updating their policies to drive construction of green buildings and support energy-efficient transportation networks. And the area’s utility, PG&E, had plans to spend $1 billion on smart grid technology.

There was just one thing: The groups weren’t coordinating their efforts on a large-enough scale to make a real difference.

Into the breach stepped Joint Venture, which is featured in a California Stewardship Network report for its work bringing together a group of stakeholders in an 8-square mile commercial and industrial area in the heart of Silicon Valley to create the state’s first Smart Energy Enterprise Development Zone (SEEDZ).

Joint Venture signed an agreement in 2011 with many of the zone’s 300 businesses—which include big-name tech firms like Google, HP, and Intuit. Other partners include the cities of Sunnyvale and Mountain View, PG&E, and several Bay Area research institutions. Their shared goal: To build out the country’s “highest-performance two-way power network,” one that improves reliability and affordability by using power more efficiently and dramatically cuts emissions by relying more on clean energy.

Smart collaboration = Smart energy

“We didn’t want to just show we could use new emerging technologies or that Silicon Valley companies were on the ball,” says Rachel Massaro, acting director of Joint Venture’s Climate Initiatives project. “We wanted to demonstrate it at scale—to really make a difference, showcase what we’re doing here, and develop some initiatives that could be applied anywhere in Silicon Valley or the Bay Area or beyond.”

This regions-based approach is the driving force behind the California Economic Summit, as well, which has joined with partners like Joint Venture to pursue a shared agenda aimed at creating jobs and keeping California competitive. Energy infrastructure is one of the Summit’s seven signature initiatives, and the Summit’s Infrastructure Action Team is developing innovative new ways to bring public and private partners together to fund projects just like those in Silicon Valley.

For Joint Venture and its partners, the first step was to identify what Massaro calls “early wins” that would draw even more partners to the project. “To get all 300 energy users engaged, we didn’t want to just do big marketing campaign about ‘joining this SEEDZ thing,'” she says. “We wanted to bring them some real value right away.”

That effort began last summer, when Joint Venture engaged all of the zone’s stakeholders to find out where they should start.

Where to begin: Power quality

Power quality, in particular, emerged as a priority. High-tech campuses are even more dependent on high-quality reliable power than most businesses: Together, SEEDZ companies have electricity demands of between 175-200 megawatts (enough energy to power tens of thousands of homes). Using local power sources like solar, biogas, and fuel cells, SEEDZ partners have found ways to produce about 6 percent of that electricity themselves.

To build out this system, however—and to ensure the 8.5 million square feet in new facilities planned for the zone will also be able to rely on high quality power—energy users in the zone need a better sense of what the grid can support.

In a series of workshops this winter, Joint Venture has been bringing together SEEDZ businesses with representatives from the city and utility to find ways to access the power quality data they need to efficiently transition to more renewable energy sources.

“We’ve brought everyone together to talk through this issue, and now we’re following up to focus on better communications among participants when issues arise, and also to get ideas about what we do in terms of infrastructure planning to ensure this isn’t a problem in the future,” says Massaro.

It may be only the beginning for SEEDZ—with several other new topics, including energy storage, next on the agenda. But thanks to Joint Venture’s collaborative approach, the project is off to a promising start.

“We’ve had a lot of participation from big energy customers,” says Massaro. “They all see the value of working together on these things. I don’t think any of the energy customers in the zone was planning on working closely with the city on infrastructure or with the utility on improving power quality—but they realize that when they work together there’s a real possibility we can make something happen.”

As always in Silicon Valley, it could be something big.


Justin Ewers

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