Editor’s Comments: Creativity and Conviction

March 11, 2019

In 1957, inventors Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes put two pieces of a shower curtain through a heat-sealing machine with the intention of creating a revolutionary new style of wallpaper. But the result—a thin sheet of plastic with air bubbles trapped between—was profoundly disappointing.

The inventors didn’t let that stop them, however. Instead, they got creative. They patented the lamination and embossing processes and brainstormed more than 400 ways of possibly using the futuristic sheets. After testing markets for greenhouse insulation and pool coverings, in 1960 they introduced the product as a packaging solution.

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Technological kismet solidified the success of bubble wrap. IBM had only months earlier launched its groundbreaking 1401 computer and was looking for ways to safely ship it to consumers. Whereas traditional packing materials, which consisted of crumpled newsprint, had proven ineffective and messy, bubble wrap protected equipment during shipping and ensured its safe (and clean) arrival. The material was a tremendous success, transforming the shipping industry with its transparent layers.

In this issue of Distributed Energy magazine, we celebrate innovative solutions—creative energy architectures, finance models, and technological advances that accomplish new levels of efficiency with inventive, out-of-the-box thinking. As today’s energy landscape shifts to include more decentralized, digitized systems, this innovative spirit and innate flexibility are vital.

In “A Growing Role for Energy Storage” (pg. 10), we explore the vital role of batteries in intelligent decentralized energy networks—specifically microgrids and virtual power plants. We see that energy storage often forms the cornerstone of energy architectures. Batteries can provide flexibility, facilitate resource integration and optimization, and support load management and stabilization in dynamic energy systems.

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Microgrid-as-a-service (or MAAS) is an energy model in which investors own and sometimes operate a microgrid, while a client pays for the power generated. In “Microgrids-As-A-Service” (pg. 18), we look at a variety of economic models, power purchase agreements, and operations and maintenance contracts that project developers have found successful, along with creative ways of structuring these partnerships for the best economic results.

We outline key advances in boiler and chiller technologies in “Hot and Cold Comfort” (pg. 26). Today’s self-monitoring intelligent controls allow for increased efficiencies and enhanced occupant comfort. Space-saving modular designs produce a smaller footprint and can be stacked and positioned in diverse configurations to ensure asset optimization.

In “CHP: Innovations and Applications” (pg. 34), we get an up-close look at some of the diverse configurations and fuel sources that are proving successful for combined heat and power production. Furthermore, the replacement of pressure reducing valves with steam turbines to capture and capitalize on additional energy is just one example of technological innovations providing enhanced efficiency.

Creative solutions are all around us. In “Data Center Demand Response” (pg. 40), we explore the idea of using data centers as dynamic resources for grid operation as demand response assets. Between scheduling servers to perform high-intensity computing at off-peak hours, to virtualizing IT loads, and distributing computing loads geographically, there are a variety of ways that data centers can provide flexibility and support for load management. It just takes ingenuity.

Today, the power industry finds itself positioned to blend scientific understanding and creativity as it develops astonishing new technologies, energy architectures, and economic models. Never before has the sector been so poised to innovate. As the industry pioneers a new distributed energy landscape, it will undoubtedly face impediments. But perhaps it will take a lesson from the inventors of bubble wrap. The same creativity conviction that forged new territory in packing materials may also inspire a more efficient and resilient energy future.