U-M launches strategy to turn energy innovation into reality

While President-elect Barack Obama has proposed putting a million American-made plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) getting 150 mpg on the road by 2015, it's hard to know if that goal is attainable.

U-M's energy institute announces an innovative strategy to tell the difference between inspired and misguided, and what it takes to make a good idea become great policy.

"Too many proposed solutions to the energy crisis have crumbled because of unintended consequences, and we do not have the time to break our addiction to fossil fuels with another well-intentioned idea that can't make it in the complicated real world," says Gary Was, director of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute. "We need to find a way to transform innovations in energy into reality with an unprecedented level of speed and efficiency."

The institute is providing $365,000 in seed money launching an effort to build a robust, ultimately Web-based, interactive tool that enables people to answer real-world questions about how — and if — technologies can succeed.

Steven Skerlos, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, is leading a team that brings experts in engineering, sociology, mathematical modeling and psychology for an unprecedented melding of technology and social science knowledge.

"We need to build a tool that will answer big questions for us quickly and accurately." Was says. "We are finding our way to that tool."

These models — intended to be modular, accessible and changeable over the Web — will provide unprecedented capability and accessibility for answering how the energy world works and what are the likely consequences of actions, policies and world events.

"We are at an environmental precipice and have to get our policy right the first time," says Skerlos, director of the Environmental and Sustainable Technologies Laboratory. "We want to develop a user-friendly, yet academically rigorous approach to make sure policymakers and the general public have information that will lead to a more informed debate regarding how and when to reduce the climate change impacts of the automotive sector."

Skerlos is working with Panos Papalambros, Department of Mechanical Engineering; Rich Gonzalez, Department of Psychology; James Jackson, Institute of Social Research; Meredith Fowlie, Economics and Public Policy; Duncan Callaway and Greg Keoleian, School of Natural Resources and Environment; and Walter McManus and John Sullivan, U-M Transportation Research Institute.

The immediate goal is to create an interactive Web site-based model where users can explore scenarios for future automotive and electricity grid performance and costs, as well as market conditions subject to regulation, and visualize the time-scales over which PHEVs will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Perhaps more importantly, the Web site will present measures that will aid in assessing the quality of simulation outcomes for society and the realism of the input scenarios.

The questions are from many fronts. Some are technical, such as miles per gallon and battery power. Some are based on performance, some on cost and incentives, and others on regulatory concerns, such as Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations or emissions trading. Skerlos notes that the novelty here lies in informing economic models with technological and regulatory design options, while presenting baffling complexity in an accessible and transparent form.

The Energy Science, Technology and Policy Award is intended to jumpstart these sweeping innovations, Was says, and once the Skerlos team demonstrates the efficacy of the strategy on the PHEV test case, significant outside funding will be required to realize its full promise.