Skip to content

Energy@Stanford & SLAC 2014

Energy@Stanford & SLAC 2014 Conference

In pursuit of sustainable energy, new graduate students find benefit in multiple viewpoints

Oct. 15, 2014

By Mark Golden, Precourt Institute for Energy

For the fourth September in a row, about 100 incoming graduate students from 23 departments cut their summer vacations short to participate in the Energy@Stanford & SLAC conference to learn about the breadth of energy research and education opportunities on The Farm.

Participants talk with William Perry(left)and George Shultz
after the former U.S. cabinet secretaries concluded their
presentation. (Credit: Bill Rivard)

The students’ interest in energy is driven by a variety of factors: the environment, the billions of people without modern energy services, entrepreneurship, and fascination with the science, economics and politics involved. The knowledge gained about the challenges to sustainable, affordable energy alarmed some participants, stoking interest in adaptation as well as innovation. In the end, though, almost all had expanded their educational horizons and were ready to get to work.

Csaba Szabo, in the Graduate School of Business’ mid-career “MSx” program, grew up in a small town in Transylvania, Romania that was centrally heated with expensive oil. “In the winter,” he said, “if the temperatures got much below freezing there was no heat.”

Later, as an energy industry consultant in Budapest, he took on a project for his hometown. The many sawmills and furniture factories nearby tended to dump their wood waste and sawdust, mostly illegally. Szabo’s project built a biomass power plant and got the town off heavy oil, using the wood waste for fuel. The plant’s exhaust is scrubbed for pollutants and its biomass sourced within a 30-mile radius, so it has a small ecological footprint. The 4,000 homes get heat and hot water through the winter, and should continue to do so for another 20 years.

“For me it was about access to energy at first,” said Szabo, who is now more interested in renewable energy startups. “Meeting environmental standards is very important, though energy still has to be affordable and reliable.”

The tension between energy’s influences on quality of life, economics and environment was a common theme at the conference, which brought in speakers from five Stanford schools, five institutes and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory.

“I’m interested in problems that will arise due to water shortages and the effect that energy has on the availability of water,” said Pranav Rai, a master’s candidate in management science and engineering. “Experiences of regular power outages and acute water shortages back home (India) are what drive my interest in energy.”

Many of the new students, not surprisingly, are driven by science. “A chemistry teacher in high school literally sparked my interest in energy when demonstrated the very exothermic reaction of thermite,” said Aaron Alpert.

“I was fascinated by the amount of raw energy that could be extracted from a few grams of powdered rust and aluminum,” said the PhD candidate in mechanical engineering. “This curiosity eventually sent me down the road of exploring how energy can be transformed and how that process can be used to power our modern world.”

For some, the allure of energy is its centrality.

“Building a new iPhone is an interesting challenge resulting in a nifty new device, but it most likely will not upend the way life is lived by 9 billion people or the way the world will exist for our descendants or the way all of the world’s nations jostle for power,” said Kim Chang, who is pursuing a master’s degree in management science and engineering.

“Energy is a fascinating junction of technology, geopolitics, economics, social justice, and more. It’s a mass of competing priorities and needs,” she said. “Finding solutions is not an abstract puzzle, but rather a moral, economic and political imperative. The world desperately needs a sea change in its energy system.”

Conference speakers encouraged the students to consider the big picture as they move on to study and research their particular topics. “Nothing is more important than getting energy right,” said William Perry, secretary of defense during the Clinton administration and emeritus professor of management science and engineering. “We have to bring together not just the technologies,” he said, “but the right policies for how we use energy.”

Climate Interactive’s Drew Jones advises a team on using
his firm's simulator to examine alternative ways to limit
global warming by the end of the century.
(Credit: Bill Rivard)

Climate strategy game

As in previous years, students learned much about the political challenges by competing in teams in a multi-day climate strategy exercise. About 20 teams tried to develop a future energy system with access for all and worldwide economic growth while restraining the global temperature rise to about 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. The target is considered the limit of what can be achieved at this point, and 2 degrees could avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

All of the teams developed their approaches by using an online simulator, Energy—Rapid Overview & Decision-Support, (En-ROADS). As students moved various levers on their laptops, the simulator graphically showed how changes in energy efficiency, fuel mix, land use, a tax on carbon dioxide emissions and other factors would affect average global temperatures and energy production.

Personal experience informed the strategies as much as technical knowledge.

On Chang’s team, one person recommended quickly cutting all greenhouse gases other than CO2 by doing such things as significantly reducing the amount of meat eaten by everyone in the world. Clamping down on gases like methane that have intense near-term warming effects would do much to restrain global temperatures, but Chang warned that the plan would not be easily implemented.

“In college, I lived in a house of about 70 students where our food budget was shared,” she said. “One person tried to switch the house to eating little to no meat and instead using the money to buy all local, organic vegetables. The amount of screaming, indignant protests and bitter recriminations that resulted from trying to impose this plan on our single house was shockingly high.”

The game got Chang and others to think about the importance of including all viewpoints and not just those that are readily available.

“I realized that we are really all in this together,” said Paricha Duangtaweesub, pursuing a degree in chemical engineering. “Policymakers need to listen to the scientists. Scientists need to think about the commercial aspects of their work, and business people need to do right by the environment.”

From the En-Roads simulation and from conference speakers like Chris Field, a biologist and one of Stanford’s leading climate scientists, several students concluded that research focused on how people can adapt to the effects of climate change is as important as inventing technologies and policies to avoid it.

“Preventing climate change is almost impossible given the inertia and requirements for immediate action, said Greg Stillman, who is pursuing an MBA and a joint master’s degree in environmental science. “Adaptation is now the central need, so technologies and ecosystem engineering to this end are most likely the best use of scarce resources.”

Other students remained confident in limiting climate change in the first place. “Our growing understanding of nanoscale science and engineering is leading to incredible advances in solar cells, batteries, catalysts and more,” said Peter Attia, a materials science student hoping to contribute to research in energy storage or sustainable energy generation.

“The conference injected me with a healthy dose of optimism,” he said. “Our global energy challenges will require exceptional brilliance and passion in technology, policy and financing, but the faculty, policymakers, executives and students at the conference taught me how to glimpse a sustainable world.”

Energy@Stanford&SLAC is part of the Stanford Graduate Summer Institute. The conference is organized and sponsored by the Precourt Institute for Energy, the Stanford Institute for Materials & Energy Science, the Global Climate & Energy Project, the Vice Provost for Graduate Education and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. The En-ROADS online simulator was supported by Climate Interactive, MIT Sloan School of Management, ClimateWorks Foundation and Precourt Institute.