Engineering the Clean Energy Transition

August 16, 2023
Engineers like David Williams are playing a crucial role in the clean energy transition with technical expertise and innovative solutions.

Engineers Bring Clean Energy To Life

David Williams LHB

Engineers play a crucial role in the clean energy transition by applying their technical expertise to develop innovative solutions and technologies. They are instrumental in designing and optimizing energy efficient systems that contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. A company whose work demonstrates the crucial role engineers are playing in the clean energy transition is CEEM-member LHB, a design company dedicated to energy conservation, resource efficiency and occupant health.

At the forefront of LHB’s work is David Williams (pictured above), who has been with the company since the mid-1990s and has driven the company’s work in energy efficiency and clean energy. Williams describes his role with LHB as multi-faceted. As the most experienced mechanical and electrical engineer in the company’s buildings group, he acts as a visionary in terms of engineering building systems. He also serves LHB’s specialized industrial and civil clients and mentors new engineers.

Williams’ interest in clean energy was sparked when he was an engineering student. He took many classes on clean energy, specifically solar, but when he finished school he found that jobs in solar were scarce. Williams’ early work was not as focused on energy efficiency, but he credits that time for his ability to understand many different types of systems, a skill he says became crucial over the course of his career.

Driving Innovation at LHB

In 1993 Williams joined the team at LHB. At that time, he remembers, they were focused on projects around chemically sensitive individuals. Williams found himself working on many indoor air quality projects where he was trying to help improve indoor air quality.

Soon after starting at LHB, Williams noticed a lack of integration with projects’ solar installation process. “We would design a building and build it,” he explained, “and then someone else would come after the fact and install the solar panels.” At Williams’ urging, LHB gained the capability to do their own solar installation as an integrated part of its projects. They also started to design large solar installations for other organizations that needed it, landing contracts with Hennepin County, National Fish and Wildlife Service and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Beyond solar, Williams points to his introduction of thermal displacement ventilation in K-12 schools as one of his most meaningful contributions to the clean energy transition. Thermal displacement ventilation delivers cool air at a low speed through floor-level diffusers and returns it through the ceiling in order to cool buildings while improving indoor air quality. Another significant contribution is the idea of not fully cooling buildings, a strategy that successfully reduces energy consumption, sometimes up to 50%, while improving comfort.

Another notable project Williams and his team undertook was for the St. Paul Port Authority. They combined displacement ventilation with a cognitive ability study that demonstrated improved brain performance when fresh air was brought into a building. By doubling the average amount of air intake, cognitive performance was enhanced by 20 percent. This approach not only saved energy by utilizing less power but also earned credit for better ventilation due to the use of displacement ventilation. Understanding the dynamics of airflow and how air moves within a building was a crucial aspect of this project.

Driving Standards for Cleaner Buildings

In the past two decades, Williams has been involved with a couple of meaningful projects seeking to create higher energy efficiency standards for buildings: the Minnesota Sustainable Buildings Program (MSBP) and ASHRAE 189.1. MSBP came up with a standard for energy efficient buildings in Minnesota. ASHRAE 189.1 provides a standard for clean buildings that exceeds the typical building code. Williams’ reflections on these experiences reveal the critical role engineers have played, and continue to play, in the clean energy transition.

Williams recalls the early MSBP meetings, where he was often one of the only engineers in attendance. While other attendees, many of whom came from academia, had excellent ideas about how to improve energy efficiency in buildings, Williams’ engineering skill set gave him the tools to envision the tangible steps that could be taken to achieve the goals and ideas set forth by the program.

Similarly, Williams’ engineering background positioned him uniquely as a member of the ASHRAE 189.1 committee. “Anybody could make a proposal and anybody could object,” Williams stated. “You were always having to really justify whatever it is you were going to do.” The combination of his engineering expertise and his prior experience designing across industries helped Williams understand what was important to include in the standards.

the heights site map

Exciting Work In Progress

Williams is currently involved with several exciting projects at LHB. “I get involved with just about all of our exciting projects that involve energy,” he comments, chuckling. He enthusiastically describes a few of the projects:

  • The Heights, a 112-acre redevelopment for the St. Paul Port Authority that is targeting net-zero carbon emissions. (Site map shown to the left.)
  • An early phase project with the Lansing Board of Water and Power to consider replacing a steam district energy system with hot water to reduce lifecycle carbon consumption for one of its largest customers by 250,000 tons.
  • Several projects that would install back-pressure turbine generators to capture waste and natural gas transmission energy and produce net zero electrical energy. Back-pressure turbine generators use steam pressure to generate electricity by spinning a rotor and are sometimes used in industrial processes to capture excess steam energy,
  • A project with a Minnesota renewable energy pioneer that seeks to install a number of 5 megawatt (MW) wind and solar hybrid installations throughout Minnesota.

These exciting projects will bring great economic benefits for companies and communities. They also demonstrate the commitment of LHB to clean energy and efficiency.

Curiosity, Patience and Persistence are Key

When asked what advice he has for new engineers, Williams first answers, “We have to stay curious.” He feels that maintaining a curious mindset and embracing emerging technologies is crucial to the clean energy transition. For example, he says, hydrogen moved slowly for a long time, but in the past year more and more people have been talking about it. Because of their curiosity, innovators are exploring creative applications for hydrogen. He points to hydrogen-powered coffee roasters as one example of this. Traditionally, coffee roasting has relied on conventional energy sources, but with the advent of hydrogen technology, new possibilities are unfolding.

Williams also advises clean energy professionals to exercise patience. “This stuff isn’t going to happen overnight,” Williams stated. That is not cause for discouragement, but rather a reason to persist. While the pace of progress may sometimes appear slow, it is crucial to keep on pushing in the transition to cleaner energy.

Reflecting on his career, he recalls how twenty years ago only 5 to 10 percent of LHB’s clientele was interested in pursuing energy-efficient design. However, Williams witnessed a significant shift in recent years as more entities, such as cities and schools, began prioritizing energy efficiency to lower their operating costs. The increasing emphasis on energy efficiency can largely be attributed to the spread of recognition of the long-term financial benefits it offers. While this understanding has taken time to grow, and still continues to grow, progress remains steady.

By exercising patience and perseverance, clean energy professionals can continue to drive change and inspire others to follow suit. The growing demand for clean energy solutions and the tangible benefits they offer will create a positive feedback loop, further encouraging the adoption of clean energy across industries.

On a more technical note, Williams stressed the importance of understanding and working with different levels of energy. This means thinking about energy use in order to maximize efficiency. Williams points to his work on schools, where he and his team designed a low temperature hot water system that was compatible with their thermal displacement ventilation system. Normally, hot water systems in commercial buildings and schools have water temperatures of around 190 degrees Fahrenheit and 170 degrees Fahrenheit when it returns to the boiler. However, they decided to lower the temperature to 140 degrees Fahrenheit with 100 degrees Fahrenheit coming back to the boiler.

This change made the buildings more efficient and comfortable. By using lower temperature hot water, Williams and his team were able to reduce energy waste and make the system work better. It’s important to think about how energy flows and consider the unintended consequences of energy use, Williams explains. Matching the amount of energy needed with the energy supplied can make a big difference in efficiency and effectiveness.

Looking Forward: Improvements and New Technologies

Looking ahead, Williams is particularly excited about the prospect of better integration in clean energy solutions. He believes that relying on a single solution is not enough to tackle complex challenges and emphasizes the importance of taking a holistic approach that considers the interplay between various factors, benefiting the environment, economy and communities.

Williams is also excited about the continuing emergence of new technologies. He brings up Photovoltaic Thermal (PVT) technology, which is not yet widespread in the United States, but holds great promise. PVT creates both electricity and heat. The electricity is used to power homes and businesses, while the heat is used to generate hot water for other applications. He sees the integration of such innovative technologies into our energy systems as a significant step in the clean energy transition.

Engineers like Williams are instrumental in propelling the clean energy transition forward. Their technical expertise and innovative solutions are at the core of designing energy-efficient systems and spearheading renewable energy projects. As they actively engage in exciting projects, engineers help shape the clean energy future while also opening up new opportunities for businesses to grow and develop new technologies.

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