Robert Cruickshank

Robert Cruickshank ’83: Back on the Grid, With Renewed Efficiency

September 26, 2017

Like an electrical circuit that has finally closed, Rob Cruickshank’s life has come full circle.

Having begun his career at WPI studying energy efficiency, he took a 21-year detour into the cable industry, helping create some of the most pioneering innovations in the field. Now, as a doctoral student at the University of Colorado and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, he’s focusing on energy management once again.

His career in cable was hardly a lark, however. Indeed, he sees telecommunications as the key to transforming our energy grid, integrating renewables, and ensuring a more sustainable energy future. Along with others in the field, Cruickshank envisions a grid that works not just one way—pumping energy from power plants to our homes and businesses—but communicating in all directions at once, sending power where it’s needed and, crucially, stopping the generation of power when it’s not.

“When we walk into a room and flip the light switch, we do it without a thought that a thimbleful of coal is being thrown on an already gigantic fire.”

It’s an idea that has obsessed him ever since his freshman year at WPI. A student who favored hands-on over book learning in high school, he spent most of his hours building things in a wood- or metal shop. He was most in his element on his parents’ property in the Catskills, where both sets of grandparents owned large compounds filled with everything a future engineering student could want—farm tractors, bulldozers, a gravity-fed spring water system. “I remember reading about electric motors and the distinction between AC and DC when I was in fourth or fifth grade,” he says. “There was an old Jeep pickup truck you could use to go out and look for deer at night—but you had to jump-start it to get it running first.”

What really transformed his life was walking into Rich Pryputniewicz’s mechanical engineering class. The new, young faculty member ran the impressively named Center for Holographic Studies and Laser micro-mechaTronics (CHSLT)—or as it was known by the grad students, the laser lab. It was a playground where they could experiment to their hearts’ content.

Robert Cruickshank in a field.Brian Nason ’83, Cruickshank’s freshman-year roommate and inseparable companion, remembers working on everything from fiber optics and circuit boards to a liquid metal thermometer and a device using UV light to kill barnacles on Navy vessels. “Rich would bring in something new and tell us what he had in mind, and we’d figure out how to build it,” he says. Cruickshank ate it up. “Bob was just an open-minded and energetic guy, and always found a way to find fun in whatever we were doing,” Nason says.

But Pryputniewicz was also an extremely rigorous professor, who forced Cruickshank to get serious about the underlying science as well. “When he was on the podium, he would start by asking the class, ‘Do you have any questions? If not I have a question for you,’” recalls Cruickshank. “And you’d better have a question, because if he called on you it was going to be ugly.”

The new rigor was just what Cruickshank needed, forcing him, for the first time, to dedicate himself to his studies. What made the biggest impact on him was the basic concept of efficiency, which in the simplest terms means the amount of useful work you get out of something divided by the amount of energy you put into it. He was inspired by how the equation changed depending on where you drew the boundaries. If you considered the amount of cold a refrigerator produced compared to the amount of electricity to run it, for example, you got a completely different answer than if you included the amount of heat released from the coils on the back, which then had to be removed by air-conditioning.

“The equation works on so many levels,” he says. “If you look at lightbulbs, for example, now LED lightbulbs hardly get hot at all, so they are so much more efficient [than incandescent bulbs]. It works for any system—and once you understand efficiency, you get it.”

For his MQP, Cruickshank went back to his grandfather’s farm in the Catskills, with the ambitious project of calculating just how much energy the land could produce—including sun, wind, water, and organic matter. With his father’s help, he hauled a shack up to the top of a mountain, installed solar panels, and set up a weather monitoring station complete with two anemometers atop a 50-foot tower to measure wind. His father bought him a microcomputer to store data, but the microchip inside only had the capacity for two weeks of data. “Every other Friday night, I’d be driving home, rain or shine, to climb the mountain to swap in a fresh chip,” he says. “It was a real adventure.”

It was that experience that first gave him the idea that perhaps there was a better way to manage our nation’s energy grid. At the time, there was a wave of back-to-the-landers looking for ways to live “off the grid.” His studies showed him that there was ample energy just sitting out there in nature if that could be harnessed—in other words, if the boundaries around the energy grid could be drawn to include the renewable sources of energy surrounding it. “I thought my ‘off-the-grid’ efficiency idea would work great on the grid as well,” he says, “if only you were able to orchestrate supply and demand.”

Robert Cruickshank sitting by a window.After graduation, Cruickshank took a job with AT&T Bell Labs in Denver, “thrilled to be working at the greatest research lab in the world.” Reality quickly set in, however, as he began feeling like a cog caught in a large bureaucracy, and research opportunities were few and far between. “When I got there, I was like, is this it?” he says. “I was champing at the bit for more.”

As he continued thinking about how he could get closer to his passion about integrating renewables into the grid, he realized there was a problem in the way the system was designed. Then, as now, energy flows primarily in one direction, from the large central-station thermal power plants to our homes and offices, sometimes traveling vast distances to get there—and losing efficiency on the way. At any given time, the electric company is keeping up with demand by operating nuclear, coal, gas, or water-powered turbines—as many as it takes to keep the lights on.

“When we walk into a room and flip the light switch, we do it without a thought that a thimbleful of coal is being thrown on an already gigantic fire,” he says. “It’s the power companies’ job to make sure it works.” The dark side of that single-minded mission, however, is that powerful generators come with an incredible amount of inertia, which means they can’t simply be switched on and off on a dime. In order to anticipate estimated demand, plants have to run generators at excess power levels to create reserves, starting with the least expensive generators and gradually turning on more expensive generators as the loads increase. Even after 135 years of engineering innovation, central-station thermal generation wastes as much as two-thirds of the energy we put into it.

Integrating more decentralized sources of energy such as wind and solar, Cruickshank realized, could cut down on the amount of power needed from the central generators, making the generation cleaner and more efficient overall. But there was a catch. Since renewable energy is both intermittent and unpredictable—varying greatly depending on whether the sun is shining or the wind is blowing—the system needed a real-time sense of how much demand is required from moment to moment. Ideally, it would even be able to send information back to users about how much supply is available, so they could modify their energy usage accordingly and put less pressure on the system to tap into its inefficient reserves.

That meant developing a sophisticated means of telecommunication. Cruickshank went back to school at the University of Colorado to study the subject in an interdisciplinary PhD program in civil engineering, telecommunications, and computer science. He had completed all but his dissertation (the dreaded “ABD”) by the time he received an offer to join a burgeoning company called Cable Television Laboratories, or CableLabs. There, his “detour” began, as he rose through the ranks for the next two decades developing cable modem technology. In the 1990s, he served as head of CableLab’s DOCSIS project—short for Data Over Cable Service Interface Specifications—where he helped develop the ISDN (Integrated Systems Digital Network) standard that took analog modems from 28.8 kilobits per second to 64 kilobits per second. “It’s a thousand times faster,” he says, still in awe of what his team accomplished. “We took it up to Washington to demonstrate it on Capitol Hill, and showed that what might take three years to download before could be done in a day.” The standard was eventually used in over a billion modems.

During all that time spent transforming our nation’s telecommunications, however, Cruickshank never lost sight of his passion for energy efficiency. When his most recent employer, Cablevision, went through a merger last year with the Franco-Dutch conglomerate Altice, he took a buyout offered to executives—and went right back to the University of Colorado to pick up where he left off on the subject of how to make the energy grid more efficient. “Although the details are different, it’s pretty much the same burning question now as then,” he says. “If the electric grid could be overlaid with a telecommunications network, and elements of supply and demand could communicate with each other, what would the impact be on efficiency, cost, and the environment?”

Robert Cruickshank in front of a building.At the university, Cruickshank re-joined the civil engineering department, and also began working with the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute (RASEI), a joint project with the U.S. Energy Department’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL). RASEI’s associate director, Gregor Henze, had been a student with Cruickshank 20 years earlier, and was now an engineering professor. In addition to becoming his thesis advisor, Henze helped him get a position at the lab, the nation’s only laboratory completely devoted to renewable energy, where he works two days a week.

Henze admires Cruickshank’s dedication and focus now that he is finally back where he’s always wanted to be. “There is just a sense of humility and gratitude that he has,” Henze says. “He is clearly someone who cherishes the fact he is able to come back to the school and once again be on the receiving end of education.”

Of course, in the two decades since he’s been away from the problem, the entire communications landscape has been utterly transformed. “The networks are here now in a way they were not there before,” Cruickshank enthuses. “Computing power is so great and inexpensive that first-year students can create elaborate big data analysis and control systems on their laptops.” Not only is broadband and Wi-Fi able to transmit data at lightning fast speeds, but the “Internet of Things” offers appliances and building heating and cooling systems the potential to communicate with the network like never before.

“Right now, when we hear the refrigerator go on in the other room, it’s completely autonomous,” says Cruickshank. “But you could imagine, in the face of high electricity costs, the fridge could decide, ‘I can wait five minutes.’” Then, should the sun come out from behind a cloud, making lower-cost renewable energy available to the grid, the refrigerator could turn itself back on to keep the sun’s energy from being wasted. Not only that, but that same fridge could have separate controllers to save energy-intensive activities, such as defrosting, for times of lower demand. “You could create pent-up demand, and then send a low price alert so a smart appliance controller would know it’s time to use clean, low-cost energy.”

The same principle could be used for millions of appliances across a region, as well as for building heating and air-conditioning, where the change in a degree or two might not even be felt by occupants, but could have a big impact on the amount of energy required from power companies. That, in turn, could allow them to use more renewable energy and hold off on starting up inefficient and dirty reserve generators.

In order to really implement such a system, however, companies need to have a better handle on just how much energy is required at any given time, so when the consumer hits that light switch, the lights still go on. That’s where Cruickshank’s latest research comes in. For his thesis, he is analyzing more than two years’ worth of data on the energy usage of some 1,400 homes in the Pacific Northwest—taking into account such elements as insulation, amount of light or shade, and age of construction. In addition, the data includes readings taken every 15 minutes on 30 different appliances, including hot water heaters, refrigerators, televisions, dryers, and ranges, providing a detailed snapshot of the energy demand of the homes’ occupants.

By analyzing the energy usage of all of these homes, Cruickshank says, it will be possible to create a mathematical model to more accurately estimate electricity demand across a much larger region. In addition, analysts can experiment with different prices to examine how that demand changes as smart appliances react. “You don’t want to create a rebound effect where everything turns off or on at once,” he says. “You want everything to flow as smoothly as possible.”

In a sense, the research is like his MQP up on the mountain in reverse—instead of meticulously measuring all the energy nature can provide, he is meticulously measuring all the energy civilization needs. But the principles, he says, are the same as those he learned in college. “Now I am using a computer to draw the same graphs I was drawing by hand in 1982,” he says.

After finally earning his doctorate, Cruickshank intends to remain active consulting on energy projects, and using the connections he honed for years in the cable industry to bring together energy companies and telecommunications companies to work together to create an efficient energy grid. “WPI taught me how to be an engineer,” he says, “and it gave me the confidence that I could succeed in making a difference.” Now years after learning that lesson, Cruickshank is coming down from the mountain at last to make his long-held dream of making a difference on energy efficiency a reality.

First published in WPI Journal, Fall 2017 edition

Behind the Scenes

A behind the scenes look at our photo shoot with Robert Cruickshank on the NREL campus in Golden, CO, featuring photographer Matt Furman.