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A glimpse into the future of energy? New graduate students test strategies to address climate change

By Mark Golden


Stanford Students Tackle Climate Change

If you were king of the world and wanted to minimize global warming, what steps would you take? What effects would they have?

Some 110 Stanford University graduate students interested in energy took on that task in a competitive game while learning from leading scholars at the annual "Energy @ Stanford & SLAC" conference, a weeklong event that introduces graduate students to the wide range of energy research and education on campus.  The group of mostly incoming students heard talks and interacted with more than 30 leading researchers in solar power, hydraulic fracturing, energy efficiency, carbon sequestration, energy finance, policy and other fields.

For the climate strategy competition, the students were divided into two-dozen teams, each with a mix of graduates from across five of the university's seven schools: Engineering, Business, Earth Sciences, Education, and Humanities & Sciences. Organizers instructed teams to restrain the global temperature rise to about 2 degrees Celsius by 2100, a target used often because it is considered the limit of what can be achieved at this point and because it could avoid the worst impacts of climate change. All of the teams developed their approaches by using a simulation software package, "En-Roads," developed by Climate Interactive, Ventana Systems and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. As students moved various levers on their laptops, the simulator graphically showed how changes in energy efficiency, fuel mix, subsidies, taxes and land use will affect average global temperatures.

"Users have to get into the numbers, engineering and economics, but also into communications, messaging and policy analysis," said Drew Jones, co-director of Climate Interactive. "It's a span of experiences, not just to study or read or hear lectures, but to live the challenge."

Members of Team Efficient Transition ponder alternative ways to lower GHG.
Members of Team Efficient Transition ponder alternative ways to lower greenhouse gas emissions and thus reduce global warming by the end of the century.

In their climate scenarios, almost all teams charged at least a moderate price for emitting carbon dioxide (CO2), whether through a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade emission permit system. They also ramped up energy efficiency and moved very aggressively to limit emissions of greenhouse gases other than CO2, like methane. Such measures would limit the average global temperature rise in 2100 to less than 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit). If no action is taken, the model the students used forecasts a rise of 4.5 degrees C (more than 8 degrees F).

The teams were also instructed to create realistic scenarios that maintain a strong economy, are fair to developing economies and do not create other environmental nightmares. Last, the students' proposals needed to be viable both technically and politically in a humanity-at-its-best scenario. Even the king of the world faces tough choices and long odds.

"No one thing has any dramatic impact on the overall picture. Just dramatically increasing solar use doesn't solve the problem. Dramatically decreasing coal use doesn't solve the problem," said Gregory Mulholland, who is pursuing a master's degree at the Graduate School of Business. "It's a little bit scary and definitely a huge challenge to try to get all these things to come together so we can solve this problem in a relatively short time."

Graduate students confer with former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz.
Graduate students confer with former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz (left), director of the Shultz-Stephenson Task Force on Energy Policy at Stanford.

Earlier in the week, however, participants had been encouraged to remain positive by former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, a Republican who supports taxing carbon in lieu of other taxes. When asked by a student whether he thinks a climate change policy, including a carbon tax, can ever get bipartisan support, Shultz responded that he is an optimist. "We've gotten to the point where I don't see how anybody can argue that the globe isn't warming," he said. "When something is obviously the right thing to do, sooner or later it dawns on people even in Washington to do it."

Global warming scenarios
In addition to putting a price on carbon, moving against other greenhouse gases and ramping up efficiency, some common choices were subsidizing renewable energy, forcing the retirement of coal-fired plants, putting further costs on oil and reining in deforestation. Some teams were willing to slow the economy or live with a temperature rise near 3 degrees C, while others assumed that a cost breakthrough from research on renewable energy will materialize in the next several years. Most teams were pretty neutral regarding natural gas, despite the current controversy about hydraulic fracturing methods used increasingly to extract gas. However, only a third of the teams relied on a significant growth in nuclear power, apparently mindful of the Fukushima disaster last year.

But the choices were not uniform. One team, for example, ramped up nuclear power globally almost to the maximum in order to snuff out coal and oil consumption very quickly. That team named itself "Quark" in honor of Burton Richter, a retired director of SLAC and Stanford professor, who won the Nobel Prize in physics for his discovery of a type of quark. Richter, who thinks more nuclear power is almost certainly essential to fighting global warming, provided the students with a broad overview of global warming, energy technologies and policy options.

Meanwhile, the ultimate winner of the week's competition, "Team Efficient Transition," phased out the burning of coal for electric power more gradually and did not lean on nuclear energy. Instead, the team's strategy relied on CO2 capture and storage to reduce emissions from burning coal, brought global deforestation nearly to a stop and settled for a temperature rise of 2.4 degrees Celsius.

"A plan that can't be implemented just sits in a file drawer. Our plan meets the environmental agenda in the long-term, is not reliant on increasing nuclear power, and is equitable for the third world," said Rebecca Belisle, a new PhD candidate in Stanford's Materials Science & Engineering Department, in pitching the winning plan to the judges. "And our approach preserves jobs in the U.S. coal industry for as long as possible and has no new taxes, so Republicans can support it."

The game and the conference generally showed that there is no silver bullet for the problem of global warming, in part because existing energy infrastructure takes decades to replace.

"This game gets you thinking about where we really need to be going as a country and it will keep you involved in the conversation," said graduate student Catherine Ruprecht in the Energy Resources Engineering Department. "It helps me couple what I'm trying to do, carbon sequestration, with all these other technologies and see how it fits in financially and politically. It broadens your scope."

"Energy @ Stanford & SLAC," part of the Stanford Graduate Summer Institute, fosters a cross-campus network of students interested in energy. The conference is sponsored by Stanford's Vice Provost for Graduate Education, the Precourt Institute for Energy, the Stanford Institute for Materials & Energy Sciences, the Global Climate & Energy Project, as well as the U.S. Department of Energy's SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory and National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Mark Golden works in communications at the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University.

Video: Graduate student Andrew Scheuermann sings the praises of the 2012 Energy@Stanford & SLAC conference.

Date and Time: 
Monday, September 10, 2012 - 8:30am