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Conference focuses on cross-disciplinary approach to sustainable energy

The complex problems surrounding energy sources and their effect on the environment not only require new technology and funding, but new ways to model and think about the problems, said John Weyant, the first presenter at a two-day conference investigating means of providing sustainable sources of energy while protecting the environment.

“Balancing Energy and the Environment: An Exploration of Future Research Needs,” sponsored by the College of Arts and Sciences and the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, runs from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. on Wednesday and Thursday.

In his opening remarks, David Wu, dean of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science, described the conference as “not a two-day event, but a way to start research connections.”

By allowing time for professors of earth and environmental science to chat with the section head and catalyst development officer of ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Company, Wu hopes to create an “organically grown community” of pivotal thinkers in sustainable energy.

This cross-disciplinary discussion will provide the seeds of solutions for the complex problems presented by climate change and energy provision, said Weyant, professor of management science and engineering at Stanford University.

A review editor for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Weyant and his colleagues recently received the Nobel Peace Prize, along with Al Gore, for their rigorous assessments of climate change research.

“We’re trying to do this dialogue at the IPCC, because of the complexities presented by this problem,” he said.

Weyant, who was introduced by Anne Meltzer, the Herbert and Ann Siegel Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, considers himself an optimist. He believes that many of the effects of climate change can be avoided or at least minimized, but to do so requires effort from researchers, policy makers and many other leaders.

Much of his hope, he said, is based on new, efficient technology, such as improved solar panels, that could allow the United States to expand economically while preserving the environment.

“My personal view is that we need a better technology base, and that would change the world,” he said in response to a question.

Weyant—who also is director of the Energy Modeling Forum, deputy director of the Precourt Institute for Energy Efficiency, and a Senior Fellow in the Freeman-Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford—has spent most of his time researching these technological innovations and the policies and funding necessary to foster them.

Economic models, often used to determine these policies, may ignore the uncertainties inherent in energy and climate change problems, Weyant said. For example, oil prices are expected to settle at around $60 to $70 per barrel by December 2009, and a model based on this assumption may show that funding alternative energy would not be profitable.

However, there’s about a 30 percent chance that oil could cost more than $100 a barrel in 2009, and if it does, alternative technologies such as wind or solar power may be cheaper than oil.

Economic models should allow for these lesser probabilities, and if they do so, funding for technology should also reflect these uncertainties.

“We have to be willing to invest as a society in technology that may not pay off given the expected oil price, but may pay off 30 percent of the time,” Weyant said.

Coffee and conversation

After Weyant’s presentation, audience members questioned him for 20 minutes on policies and technology development and then were dismissed for a break.

Between sips of coffee and handshakes, they discussed their own connections to the workshop and forged relationships. A current student in the Energy Research Center discussed his thesis on carbon emissions with Hans Agarwal ’06G, an emissions engineer at Foster Wheeler North America.

As Chris Larkin, director of communications and marketing for the engineering college, surveyed the crowd, he said, “Part of this (conference) is getting people from different perspectives who are in the same field to do what they are doing now—talking.”

Bruce Wilson, co-owner of Lehigh Valley Green Builders Forum, was pleased to return to the school where he studied physics and then geology for three years in the 1970s. “I came in ’73 during the Arab Oil Embargo,” he said.

During that time, Wilson, then a painter, bought a condemned house and began renovating it. Soon, he became a renovation expert, but he also sought to create living habitats that were friendly to the environment. Today, his company, LVGBF, provides public lectures and tours of green buildings and trains architects, professionals and businesses on constructing and maintaining environmentally friendly buildings.

“I’m excited to be here,” he said of the conference. “This is great.”

Other presentations Wednesday discussed coal technology, photovoltaics, magnetic fusion, economics of power generation, biomass-derived fuels and infrastructure challenges to the hydrogen economy.

--Becky Straw


Posted on Wednesday, October 31, 2007

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