Q&A: Dean Kamen on Sustainable Technologies and the Smart Grid

Dean Kamen is best known as the inventor of the Segway, but lately he has been tinkering with an ambitious array of technologies related in some way to sustainability. His distributed power generation and water purification systems, for instance, might help developing countries leapfrog the need for conventional infrastructure. He’s also delving into small-scale combined heat and power (CHP) systems, solar technology, and carbon capture and sequestration. And he’s turned North Dumpling, his small island off the coast of Connecticut, into an off-the-grid demonstration plot for renewable energy and energy efficiency.

During his keynote address at last month’s Build Boston, Kamen talked up his firm’s portable water distiller and Stirling engine power generator, among other recent innovations. He also made a vigorous pitch for his For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology (FIRST) foundation, which promotes science and technology in schools and organizes an international robotics competition. After the keynote, I spoke to Kamen about renewable-energy technologies, the pros and cons of nuclear power, and the characteristics of a smart grid.

What do you make of the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED certification system?

It’s great that there’s an organization out there that’s helping to quantitatively assess and give people guidance on how to be green, because while everybody knows it’s a good idea, nobody seems to know exactly how to assess it–there are so many intangibles and so many complex unintended consequences of doing things.

In your own experience, which design elements you have found to be key in reaching zero net-energy consumption?

There are some areas where there’s such low-hanging fruit that people just don’t go after it, like good insulation and good seals, so you’re not  trying to heat the great outdoors. I also think a relatively substantial piece of low-hanging fruit is combined heat and power. If, for example, you took one of our Stirling generators and used it in the home, it would make use of one hundred percent of the electricity, and you could expect it to make use of eighty or ninety percent of the waste heat. When people buy electricity from Boston Edison, thirty-five percent of the coal they burn is making electricity, which means that sixty-five percent is doing nothing but killing fish in a river somewhere because you can’t move the heat around. So I think any place where you can make use of waste heat, you should generate your electricity on-site with a CHP unit.

Right, there’s a lot of promise there. Are you working on specific technologies ?

Yes, we are right now trying to develop some prototypes of our Stirling system to do that.

What about energy efficiency? It’s arguably more important than renewable energy generation, because it can provide the largest and quickest return in terms of reducing our use of fossil fuels.

Energy efficiency is among the lowest of the low-hanging fruit. The kilowatt that you never produce or never needed will be way cleaner that the kilowatt you produced with coal or oil or even renewables.

What do you think about the mix of renewable energy technologies under development? Which are the most important to invest in, and which should we avoid spending on?

I happen to like wind and solar, which are more realistic, reliable, and practical than they were ten years ago. But it will take some time before they are supplying a significant part of our base load. Making ethanol out of stuff that’s otherwise a good crop is fundamentally stupid. I think renewable energy could be made from waste products–biomass and other non-food crops.

There’s been some debate over whether nuclear power can be considered a clean, no-carbon technology. Do you think it is?

I do, and I think properly implemented it also in the end is going to be safer and better for global health than most of the other energy sources we’ve come to accept. We live with the real consequences of smog and the real consequences of the results of the economic and political issues around oil and coal. But we end up running away from nuclear because we have hypothetical problems that we think somehow we can’t deal with, like making [the nuclear power plants] safe and protecting them. I think it’s an unfortunate bit of irrational thinking.

Do you think the security and safety issues are solvable,  or solved sufficiently at this point to move ahead?

I think both are true. I think, at some scale, properly implemented systems are appropriate now. There’s no such thing as free and no-risk, but I think that nuclear power is reasonable in some places. And if we spent nearly as much on making it even better, even safer, even cheaper, even more secure as we do on the legal and political issues, whining and fighting about it, we would have gone a lot further than we’ve gone. We’ve gotta get past all that.

What about clean coal?

I have to admit that I happen to be involved in a company that I believe is a leader in carbon capture and sequestration, so I’m biased. But I think that for at least some period of time–though not forever, since coal is such an enormous  percentage of global energy production–we should be racing towards doing  whatever we can to clean that up.

What do you think about the Smart Grid? What aspects of the electric transmission and distribution system needs upgrading, and how?

I think making the grid smart is certainly important, but I think more than making it smart we have to put things that are smart on it.  We could put millions of our little Stirling generators on the grid, and if the grid could be made smart and all of these devices are coordinated and communicating with each other, that could be a huge opportunity. For instance, that could eliminate the need for peaking plants and the generators could be enormously useful in helping improve the security of the grid. [But] the grid needs to be more robust and modern to support new types of distributed generation and allow all the new versions of generation and transmission to work with each other and more efficiently.

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