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September 17, 2015

Should we pull the plug on AC power?

Electric Plug

“We may not know it, but Pittsburgh is the energy capital of the world,” says Bopaya Bidanda, chair of the Department of Industrial Engineering in the Swanson School of Engineering, where he is the Ernest E. Roth Professor of Industrial Engineering.

Bopaya Bidanda

Bopaya Bidanda

He cites the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Energy Technology Laboratory here, along with the prominence of Westinghouse in nuclear power and the prevalence of drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale surrounding us.

“Why not DC also?” Bidanda says.

DC is direct current, a power source that can be generated by the sun and stored in batteries, as opposed to alternating current, or AC, generated by rotating motors and sent down wires to outlets in our walls.

A century ago, George Westinghouse’s AC generating system won out over Thomas Edison’s DC invention as the U.S. and world energy standard, and American power generation is heavily invested in AC to this day. But Bidanda and other faculty members, including John Camillus, Donald R. Beall Professor of Strategic Management, Organizations and Entrepreneurship in the Katz Graduate School of Business, and John Wallace, faculty member in the School of Social Work, are teaming to promote DC as a more efficient, green and even humane power source.

Most electronic devices run on DC power, but their batteries are charged via AC outlets, which lose 11-15 percent of their energy when traveling from the power plant. While DC power cannot be transmitted easily by wires, it can be more locally and environmentally generated for individual or small-group uses and benefit more remote or poorer areas, the trio points out. In fact, India today is building more DC power capabilities, particularly because their AC landline grids are not very good.

John Camillus

John Camillus

In the U.S. and other countries with more established AC grids, major computer centers still will need to be DC powered, for one, since DC is more efficient for cooling large arrays of servers and related equipment. “DC is the wave of the future,” says Camillus. “It is happening at the top of the pyramid in the U.S., and at the bottom of the pyramid” in the developing world.  “We tend to be the pioneers here.”

Bidanda, Camillus and Wallace hope to attract established companies to DC power and to Pittsburgh at the same time, aiming to connect companies with Pitt’s international reach to spread new DC discoveries and serve the bottom of the economic pyramid, where new energy generation methods are needed most — and where innovations will have a global market.

“The price point pressures and the demand of the base of the pyramid force you to innovate,” says Camillus, “The bottom of the pyramid forces you to address disruptive technologies.”


Pitt already is piloting DC projects in Pittsburgh’s Homewood neighborhood and in seven villages in India.

John Wallace

John Wallace

Locally, the Homewood pilot effort involves placing two greenhouses, including one completely off the AC grid and another featuring aquaponics, into a triplex on Fleury Street that was once a crack house. The building, heated with solar panels, also has business classes for kids, a recording studio and offices for Bible Center Church, where Wallace is senior pastor.

Wallace, who also is part of the leadership of the Homewood Children’s Village and Operation Better Block in that area, says these local organizations have been surveying Homewood properties and engaging residents in the process of deciding what improvements DC power will bring to their streets.

“The pieces that are exciting to me are the employment pieces,” he says — the jobs that can come from teaching people to grow their own food with DC power, particularly in a neighborhood without nearby outlets for fresh vegetables.

In India, the Pitt team has identified seven villages without power. There, they are trying to provide each home with solar power to run lights, a battery and a phone charger, as well as exhaust fans that literally can save the lives of women who tend to die earlier in homes where they inhale smoke from tending kerosene lamps and cooking fires.

“But it’s very much the idea of building community” that also drives their effort, says Camillus. DC power will be generated not by a solar panel in each home but through a community solar-power bank that also allows each village to run water purification equipment. The idea is to adapt green technologies to India’s real needs. “We’ll be trying to help them get into businesses that create jobs,” he adds.

The effort also has an academic component, with a master’s-level certificate program focusing on DC technologies and business concepts being developed. Bidanda, who co-directs engineering’s Manufacturing Assistance Center, hopes to use center resources to train new workers for manufacturing jobs in the DC energy field.

While all three professors have appointments in the business school, it is perhaps the human focus more than the business focus that brings them all to this project. Seven years ago, Bidanda and Camillus started the Business of Humanity project, whose aim is “injecting social responsibility into the business model,” says Camillus. Its purpose is to show that companies can do well — make a profit — by doing good. They have an $800,000 grant from the Henry L. Hillman Foundation for “Leveraging DC Power and the Business of Humanity to Transform the Pittsburgh Region.”

“To me,” says Wallace, “this is an issue of maximizing potential: How many children are there in India, in Haiti, in Africa, who don’t have food, who don’t have light? Their contribution to the world will not be made.”

“The challenge that the three of us have taken on,” says Camillus, “is to attract companies to do this, to make it attractive for companies to get into the business—”

“— for the right reason,” adds Bidanda.

“It has to go beyond maximizing shareholder wealth,” says Camillus. “We have to make it into an economic incentive. It can change the world.”

—Marty Levine         

Filed under: Feature,Volume 48 Issue 2

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