Future Forward: From Smart Grid to Smart Water—Addressing Knowledge Gaps to Improve Performance
Neil Fromer, executive director of the Caltech Resnick Sustainability Institute, received his PhD in semiconductor Physics from UC Berkeley and his BS in Engineering/Physics from Brown University. Prior to Caltech, Fromer was director of advanced projects as well as the director of reliability and testing for Soliant Energy, a concentrating photovoltaic company. He also worked on the commercialization of efficient LED light bulbs. This mix of academic and applied research helps inform and create dialog among scientists, the commercial world and regulatory frameworks.
The Resnick Institute is Caltech’s campuswide energy and sustainability research center, with a focus on supporting next-generation science and technology research for transformational change. The focus centers on natural resources—energy, water and materials—to help humans consume them as efficiently as possible to be the most-sustainable planet possible.
“A lot of our work is in energy, because that is the biggest knob we have to turn to make our world more efficient and cleaner,” says Fromer. “We think about how we use water as a sustainable resource. We also think about how we understand the chemicals, plastics and metals that we make every day. We want to understand the resource constraints and how we can make those processes as efficient as possible.”
A current area of investigation is determining ideas and infrastructure that create a more-resilient electrical grid and applying some of those ideas to water-systems challenges. Constraints in water-delivery and stormwater systems are being heightened by California’s drought conditions, and the intent is to use this time of rethinking to make a more-dynamic, resilient and adaptive system.
“We’re watching the transformation in the electricity sector and are comparing the similarities and differences with water infrastructure,” adds Fromer. “We have an old, dumb infrastructure in water, where we don’t know a lot of what’s going on in terms of the quality of the pipes or even when water is not of suitable quality unless it gets to very specific places in the system. We’re also thinking about making a system that allows more people to reuse wastewater in interesting and different ways to relieve some of the pressure on our existing water system.”
You have to understand the system as a whole if you really want to design a built environment that is as efficient and resilient as possible.
Research includes remote-sensing inputs from geologists and geophysicists who are measuring soil moisture via satellites to better understand groundwater. Such broader understanding then must be coupled by sensing and measuring water networks to better understand where water comes from, who’s using the water, where it’s going, what water quality is vs. what it should be, and how the different pieces of water infrastructure plug into one another.
The Resnick Institute has a mission to foster transformational change and sustainability. This fits into the broader context at Caltech, where there’s already a culture of multidisciplinary collaboration to address universal challenges in a way that doesn’t get stuck in individual disciplinary silos.
“I try and position myself in a place where I can help create an important dialog to get scientists to understand real-world constraints,” says Fromer. “I also engage with the people who are designing the next generation of infrastructure and the regulators for that infrastructure. The goal is to share understanding about the fundamental science and technology challenges and opportunities, and to make sure we don’t introduce new constraints.”
Resilience and Adaptability
Water infrastructure has been brought to a head by the drought, but rethinking its design and the repercussions of that design is a change that needs to come.
“When you think about energy and natural-resource use, we have water, electric, natural gas, transportation and agricultural infrastructure that all intersect,” notes Fromer. “All go through natural changes, and we are moving into a new paradigm where they all will be talking to one another, and hopefully in a smart way that will make the system as a whole more efficient.”
While thinking of entirely new infrastructure, it’s important to note that people built an engineered system in California 100 years ago that made sense based on their understanding at the time, but our understanding has since changed.
“It’s important to be cautious about this idea of designing a better system,” says Fromer. “The design is only as good as the model, and the models are only as good as the data.”
California now is dealing with two related problems. Los Angeles has concrete channelized rivers, and when rain falls in the mountains, it carries sediment that’s filling up the reservoirs close to the mountains. That built-up sediment is being dredged out of reservoirs to increase capacity, but at the same time coastline is eroding because that natural sediment isn’t getting to the coast. So money is being spent at the top and bottom, because people have disrupted the natural stormwater system.
“We created a built environment that did what we wanted it to do very well, but didn’t realize about all the other pieces that needed to work with it,” adds Fromer. “That’s a great example of a limited understanding of the system, and speaks to the importance of improving our understanding before undertaking new designs.”