New UCLA Center to Drive International Research in Clean Energy

Oct 12, 2011

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom

By Alison Hewitt

An interdisciplinary crowd of scientists from around the world gathered on campus Monday for a workshop aimed at shaping UCLA’s new Clean Energy Research Center–Los Angeles.

CERC–LA researchers will explore solutions for storing, generating, transmitting and managing clean, renewable energy, and UCLA scientists at the center will develop new technologies through joint research with universities, utilities, companies and government agencies around the world.

“We have many centers at UCLA devoted to sustainability,” said CERC–LA’s director, UCLA electrical engineering professor Lei He. “But one thing not emphasized enough is that these sustainability issues are global challenges that should be addressed by international collaboration.”

CERC–LA has already capitalized on UCLA’s existing academic relationships with Chinese universities to build partnerships with Fudan University and Peking University, as well as Chinese research organizations, power utilities and technology companies. Several of these organizations were represented at the workshop, which gathered input from the group of global experts on how best to structure the center and refine its mission.

UC Regent Bonnie Reiss, who served as a senior adviser to former Calif. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on major policy initiatives, including the environment, attended the workshop. For public utilities to meet California’s mandate that they draw 33 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020, they will need innovations from centers like CERC–LA, she said.

“This center and the work it has committed to doing is a real beacon of hope,” Reiss said. “A center like this understands that the only way to succeed — and the true power — is in collaboration … That’s what’s so brilliant and visionary about this center.”

CERC–LA is drawing on the expertise of professors from engineering, computer science, law, health, public affairs and the environment. The center will be housed at UCLA’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

“One of our major focuses is energy,” said UCLA Engineering dean Vijay Dhir. “There’s no silver bullet to replace our reliance on fossil fuels. However, the research our faculty and staff are doing will form the underpinnings of the energy sources we will rely on in the future.”

UCLA Engineering faculty are developing a smart power grid that can handle the complex power needs of a system that gets energy from residential solar panels and electric vehicles; they are doubling thermal storage limits; creating more efficient and durable blades for wind turbines; and developing the means to capture carbon dioxide and convert it back into fuel, Dhir said.

Ron Nichols, general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, said a major challenge for the DWP will be switching from generating their own power to creating a smart power grid that can handle customer-generated energy from sources like solar panels.

“Our systems weren’t designed for distributed energy,” he said. “But we are going to change to a customer-based, distributed model … That’s how we’re going to get off coal.”

Nichols described power utilities as part of a slow, cautious industry facing pressures to incorporate new technology.

“We’re still tending to plan around current or yesterday’s technology … and we have to go from research to implementation much more quickly,” he said. “We want Los Angeles to be part of the global energy transition … and we welcome the opportunity for our local businesses to partner with businesses in China.”

Among those attending the conference were Zhiwei Xu, a professor and chief technology officer at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Computing Technology; Dongxiao Zhang, executive vice dean of the College of Engineering at Peking University and founding chair of their university’s department of energy and resources engineering; and Lirong Zheng, dean of the school of information science and technology at Fudan University.

Some of the initial partnerships in China include collaborations with the State Grid of China Corp., the Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp., the China Academy of Sciences, Fudan University, Peking University, Pride Power System Technologies Ltd. and Beijing Dianba (e-bus) Technology Ltd.

Reflecting the global nature of many energy challenges, CERC–LA will engage the participation of a multidisciplinary group of researchers from many different nations. The center will have satellite offices and laboratories in other cities, including Shanghai and Beijing, said Michael Swords, who is on the staff of CERC–LA and is executive director of strategic research initiatives in UCLA’s Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research.

China and the U.S. are the world’s top energy consumers, energy producers and greenhouse gas emitters. The two countries’ cooperation on clean energy is crucial to confronting the global climate crisis and presents an important opportunity to create American jobs and build U.S. leadership in a growing global industry, Swords said.

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