Engineer Ross Koningstein went to Silicon Valley and helped build a little company that we know as Google. As engineering director emeritus, Koningstein is in the enviable position of championing disruptive technology that can change industries and, quite possibly, tackle one of the most pressing issues of our time—climate change.
An entrepreneurial class of hard-working engineers and computer scientists congregating at tiny start-ups has energized Silicon Valley’s booming tech sector. Today California is the dream, Silicon Valley is the destination, and Google sits at the pinnacle of it all. Hard to believe that just 17 years ago, Google didn’t exist. Today it holds a place of honour in the dictionary—a verb that most of us use in daily conversation. We Google ourselves, we Google our favourite restaurants, we quickly Google-map our destination before heading out for the evening. Google is embedded in every aspect of our lives, and the thousands of super-smart, sometimes disruptive ideas being pursued on its campuses are turning heads.
And so it was that the spring 2015 get-together for Carleton University alumni at the home of Ross Koningstein, BEng/84, and Patti Spezzaferro was a hot-ticket event on the local alumni calendar. His career trajectory is the stuff of dreams for many a recent graduate—stints at a couple of California start-ups in the early 2000s, then a breakthrough gig with a third start-up by the name of Google. Today his official title is engineering director emeritus, and his day-to-day job as a general background engineer allows him to pursue all manner of ideas, including clean energy, a topic he has been working on both at home and for Google, for close to a decade.
The meet-up at Casa Koningstein-Spezzaferro was a casual reunion where guests were encouraged to swap stories with fellow Silicon Valley-based alumni. It also allowed Koningstein to shine a light on current research taking place at Carleton University and to show visitors his personal research project: a green renovation of his 1928 house. The inspiration for the evening was courtesy of another illustrious alumnus, Chancellor Charles Chi, BEng/88. Chi, too, made his mark in Silicon Valley, hosting an event for Carleton University alumni at his own home there more than a decade ago. Ross Koningstein attended. “Even though it was 12 or 13 years ago, I still remember how much fun it was,” says Koningstein. “There’s a distinctly different tone when an event is at someone’s house. So I thought, Why don’t we do it at my place?”
To encourage discussion beyond “the good old days,” Koningstein suggested that a couple of Carleton professors and their students fly down from Ottawa for the meet-up and set up demonstrations of their research. “Let’s not just remember what Carleton University was five, 10 or 20 years ago. Let’s showcase what’s going on now! Depending on when you graduated, the current projects might make you say ‘Oh, yeah, I knew that was going on’ to ‘Gee, wow, who knew!’” As guests reminisced, watching demos in the house or strolling through the garden, many also stopped to check out a number of posters Koningstein had created to explain technical details of the green renovation of his own home.
For Koningstein, green technology is a passion that is both personal and professional. He hopes that by helping more people truly understand the trials and tribulations of his family’s green renovation, he can kick-start a much deeper dialogue about what it means to try to be greener. It’s a case of fixing the world one conversation at a time. That discussion, says Koningstein, has to be based on logic. “A lot of people who think they’re doing wonderful stuff actually have no clue if it makes a difference and don’t know how to measure it,” he explains. “The key with green building is to be attuned to your environment—to really look closely at what is unique or special or challenging in the particular location your building is going into. After that, your focus should be addressing the top four or five most important things.”
Easier said than done. But that’s where an engineer’s training and a Google employee’s can-do approach to problem-solving kick in. Logic requires that you analyze a problem rationally—and respond effectively when the news is bad. As a teenager in Ottawa, Koningstein had made some money working in construction, learning along the way that most decisions on insulation, heating and ventilation were because “that’s just the way things had always been done.” Two decades later, when he bought a 1928 house and began plotting his own renovation, he realized quickly that little had changed in the intervening years. Koningstein and Spezzaferro had planned a simple renovation of the kitchen and bathroom, but once they had ripped out a few walls, they discovered that all the wiring, plumbing and heating needed to be replaced to comply with city codes. “At the time, I wasn’t thinking about green building as much as how we’d make the house the way we’d like it. But when the heating contractor came in and started explaining what they were proposing for heating, I was horrified!”
The heating contractor had recommended a plan whereby the family room would be heated by the uninsulated concrete floor, which was set directly on the ground—in other words, a design in which an inordinate amount of heat would end up flowing straight back out into the ground. After “recoiling in horror,” Koningstein opted to take the reins on designing his own energy-efficient renovation.
What ensued was a three-year saga with Koningstein and his contractor learning as they progressed through the project. Along the way, he had to explain his objectives not only to some skeptical trades professionals but also to recalcitrant city and county officials used to doing things the same way for decades. As Koningstein explains it, if a creative idea works, the person who came up with the plan gets all the credit. If it bombs, the contractor takes all the blame. In other words, there’s little incentive for building professionals to go out on a limb for an out-of-the-box client like himself.
There were hiccups, as with any project, but Koningstein got most of what he wanted. There were also some huge successes: a radiant-barrier-insulated house with minimal heating and cooling costs; shower-heat reclamation; a ground-loop heat pump that circulates water through buried pipes in the garden and into the house, taking advantage of the underground temperature to cool the house; and solar panels that provide hot water for the taps and lukewarm water to radiant floors to keep the house at a comfortable temperature in spring and fall.
Of course, for the non-engineer, the wow factor is in the things that can be seen: Spezzaferro ensured that the result was a beautifully renovated house surrounded by lush gardens, watered using captured grey water from the shower, winter-rain runoff that has been stored in an underground cistern, and a well. During his renovation, Koningstein kept a blog and gave periodic tours for contractors, architects and homeowners interested in the mechanics and economics of designing a greener house. “Sadly, many people, including contractors, wouldn’t know effective green building if they tripped over it,” says Koningstein. “By inviting people to see what it means to try to be greener, I hoped to generate more discussion and change in the industry.” His is an ethos that applies to the corporate culture at Google, where, he says, employees are encouraged to set bold goals and then explore what can be accomplished by revolutionizing technology.
That Google determination was central to the hugely ambitious RE<C initiative that ran from 2007 to 2011. Short for Renewable Energy Cheaper Than Coal (RE<C), the project saw Koningstein and other scientists and engineers committed to discovering and investing in potentially breakthrough technologies that would drive down the cost of renewable energy. Where his own home is a study of green on a micro scale, RE<C allowed Koningstein to explore the science and economics on a global scale.
With an environmental crisis enveloping the planet, the daily news is filled with man-made disasters—from denuded hillsides precipitating ruinous mudslides to catastrophic oil spills caused by lax environmental controls. For decades, the ongoing failure of governments and individuals to curb their carbon emissions has led to a growing sense that global warming may be irreversible. Into that mindset stepped Google. Their premise was simple. If renewable energy could be produced cheaper than energy from coal-fired power plants, the world would be well on its way to regeneration.
Over the next four years, Google invested in green-tech start-ups and conducted its own internal research and development. Then, in 2011, the goal of launching a global renewable-energy revolution was quietly shelved. “Unfortunately, not every Google moon shot leaves Earth orbit,” wrote Koningstein and fellow engineer David Fork in a 2014 Institute of Electrical Engineers Spectrum essay on what they had learned from the project. Going in, they had worked on the assumption that “with steady improvements to renewable-energy technologies, society could stave off catastrophic climate change.” What they discovered was that today’s renewable technologies—be they wind power, geothermal or solar—simply can’t reverse climate change. The scale and economics of the problem are such that only a new economically disruptive zero-carbon energy source can reverse climate change.
That said, Koningstein takes pains to point out that it’s not all doom and gloom. Google continues to invest in a number of renewable-energy projects. The company has also been proactive in the pursuit of its own greening, including building state-of-the-art energy-efficient data centres and putting in place efficiencies that take the company beyond carbon-neutral status. Today, Koningstein continues to work on projects in Google’s energy group. “There’s a continual flow of ideas, so the portfolio of things we’re investigating evolves.” He remains optimistic that the solutions to climate change are out there.
As the conversation wraps up, Koningstein moves away from the global dramas of rising sea temperatures and melting glaciers and back to the personal scale. It was a lot of fun having alumni at his home, he says. “Canadians have a very different culture, but they fit in and they’re very productive. It’s really neat to see what everyone’s up to and where their work is going.” There’s a tongue-in-cheek saying that if information can’t be found on Google, it doesn’t exist. It’s a ludicrous statement, but it’s also a compliment. For Koningstein and many of his colleagues at Google, the quest for more and better knowledge is what makes going to work every day so much fun. In sharing that enthusiasm, he inspires those around him and keeps the conversation rolling.