Geoff Parker: Designing a Leaner, More Reliable Energy Grid

“You can have technological innovation, but unless there’s an economic framework that makes sense for people to adopt the technology and use it, a lot of money is going to get spent on equipment without much benefit,” says Geoff Parker, who will join the Thayer School of Engineering in July as a professor and director of the Master of Engineering Management (MEM) program.

Parker is talking about why engineers need to understand business—and why business needs engineers. “From the business side, understanding technology like an engineer gives you powerful advantages, because then you can think about designing business models that are consistent with the constraints and opportunities that technologies provide.”

Having built a career at the intersection of markets and tech, Parker is an ideal match for the MEM program, whose mission is to develop managers who understand both the engineering and the business aspects of technology.

Currently a professor of management science at Tulane University and director of the Tulane Energy Institute, Parker has coauthored a new book, Platform Revolution: How Networked Markets Are Transforming the Economy and How to Make Them Work for You (W.W. Norton), about how to design decentralized platforms of consumers and producers (think Airbnb and Facebook) and apply them to solving critical problems.

For example: improving the integration of renewable energy into the power grid through smart technology that accounts for fine variations in supply and demand.

“Commercial buildings absorb enormous amounts of electricity, but when they actually demand power is quite flexible,” Parker says. “You can push or pull demand by half an hour with minimal impact on comfort, as long as air is circulating. That gives you, in effect, a storage resource—if you push demand out, that’s the same as supplying extra capacity to the system. So buildings themselves can become part of the system that accommodates the variability of renewable energy.”

Through the platform model, “we now have the ability to put signals into place to build markets that would make it possible for the demand side to get compensated for their participation in the overall system. That makes all of this renewable technology interoperate better,” he says.

The impact? “This is an enormous opportunity. We would be able to run a leaner, less expensive, more reliable system,” he says. “This reconceptualization of the power system is just one example of how the broader economy is shifting toward more distributed systems, and the economics and the strategy of making all that work.”

To further develop these ideas, Parker also coauthored a recently released white paper for the state of New York titled “Developing Competitive Electricity Markets and Pricing Structures.”

Among his other research projects is a paper, published recently in Computers and Operations Research, in which he and his coauthors apply mathematical methods originally developed for the telecommunications industry to analyze flows of energy.

“One of the core science challenges for physicists and chemists is to improve storage technology, because that’s a fundamental enabling technology that will help much better integrate renewable energy,” he says. “Our work doesn’t help solve the fundamental chemistry of storage, but it helps inform how much you need. The reality is a little bit of storage makes an enormous difference in helping to match variable supply with variable demand.”

Parker has an undergraduate degree in engineering from Princeton and a master’s of engineering and a PhD in management science from MIT, where he is currently a visiting scholar. After earning his undergraduate degree, he worked for General Electric, both as an engineer and in finance, then returned to academia when he joined Tulane’s faculty. He serves or has served as associate editor at multiple journals and as a National Science Foundation (NSF) panelist, and has received research funding from the NSF, the Department of Energy, and numerous corporations.

He also serves on the leadership advisory board of GE Africa. This spring, through the Center for Global Enterprise and with funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, he will be co-teaching an online course to bring his expertise on platform business models to students in Africa.

That global outlook is something he looks forward to sharing with the MEM program. “We’re operating in a multicultural and global world, and so there are opportunities to do even more global outreach and to position the program to help bridge across continents and cultures,” he says.