November 9, 2015

Energy Initiative at 4: New gains, new goals, new era for energy research, education, engagement

Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions

The world's population is rising and, with it, the parallel challenges of providing a continuously growing supply of affordable energy while minimizing the environmental impact of its production and use.

Industry, academia, governments and others are working to address those challenges – and nowhere with more creativity, passion and insight than at Duke University, where the Energy Initiative is the catalyst and unifier of that work.

The Duke University Energy Initiative is a university-wide interdisciplinary collaboration focused on creating solutions to provide accessible, affordable, reliable, and clean energy. It relies on Duke's interdisciplinary culture and top-tier schools to address the grand challenges of energy use and production, marrying the work of a wide range of Duke faculty, research staff and students with the expertise of energy professionals and decision-makers around the globe.

"It's incredibly important for the university and all its assets to be working on the most important issues of the day," according to the Initiative's director, Richard Newell. "Meeting growing demands for energy while protecting our environment is one of the greatest challenges of the 21st century, hands down."

The Initiative draws on the strengths of students and faculty from six schools: Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Fuqua School of Business, Pratt School of Engineering, Nicholas School of the Environment, Law School, and Sanford School of Public Policy. In addition, the Initiative actively engages experts off campus, from policymakers to professional engineers.

"Energy is an absolutely essential ingredient to human development and quality of life," Newell said. "There are a billion people globally without access to electricity and probably twice that number who only have electricity on an intermittent basis. If we are going to help fulfill the aspirations of individual people globally and at the same time confront the risk posed by global climate change, we need to find new ways of meeting energy demand."

Duke's Energy Initiative is now in its fourth year of supporting students and researchers at Duke as they work together and with energy professionals to fulfill those global aspirations. The Initiative is currently in the process of becoming one of the university's signature Institutes, building on its success as a nexus of and catalyst for energy education, research and engagement.

Its goals going forward include recruiting additional top-tier energy faculty and students; increasing enrollment in energy courses and degree programs; building greater internal and external support and partnership for energy research projects; and growing Duke's global reputation as a go-to source for policy- and business-relevant research and the next generation of energy innovators and leaders.

Even before the Initiative was established, energy was generating a buzz across the Duke campus. Students flocked to energy classes and organized energy clubs. The Fuqua Business School and Nicholas School of the Environment had professional degree programs related to energy. Trinity College of Arts and Sciences and the Pratt School of Engineering had developed a joint undergraduate certificate in energy and the environment.

In 2010 and early 2011, a cross-university process involving faculty, Duke's Provost, and the deans of six schools considered strategic priorities and energy quickly rose to the top of the list. They sought to coalesce activity and provide a single point of information, guidance and support for Duke students and faculty interested in energy education and research, and for connecting with the wider world of energy academics and professionals. The Energy Initiative was born.

"What we realized early on from an assessment is that Duke was unbelievably active in this space but we hadn't connected it together," Fuqua's dean, Bill Boulding, recalled.

He noted that Fuqua students had organized an energy club and energy boot camp that could benefit students in other schools. "From the point of view of a business lens, we hadn't packaged and marketed the things we were already doing, much less invested in ways to help us enhance what we were doing," he said. "The Initiative allows us to harness, coordinate and integrate activities."

The Initiative's work rests on three pillars: education, research and engagement.

For students, the Initiative is a clearinghouse, providing all the information they need to study energy at Duke.

The Initiative's website is the only campus resource where students can find a complete, searchable database of dozens of energy-related courses across the university. It also provides complete information on six energy certificates and degree programs offered by Trinity, Pratt, Fuqua, Sanford and the Nicholas school.

The Initiative also manages project teams in the energy theme of Bass Connections, the campus-wide experiential educational program that convenes learners and researchers from all disciplines and levels into small research teams to address complex societal issues.

So far more than 20 Bass Connections in Energy teams have worked on projects covering topics ranging from energy efficiency for low-income households to aerial image detection of rooftop solar panels. And some have stretched the program's interdisciplinary spirit to its full extent: A two-year project saw students learning about library science, filmmaking, peacekeeping and policy-making as they cataloged and edited footage taken by United Nations teams studying the effect of energy needs on post-war regions.

The Energy Initiative also recognizes that education takes place outside the classroom and supports a range of co-curricular activities from competitions and field trips to distinguished speakers and workshops. All of these activities are publicized through its website and in "Currents," an e-newsletter specifically for students.

The Initiative's research pillar encompasses a wide range of topics across the university, with emphasis currently on four areas: energy economics, policy, and modeling; energy materials; energy data analytics; and energy and environmental science and technology.

The Initiative helps to connect researchers on and off campus, provides seed grants and offers research support on topics ranging from advanced solar technologies to energy data analytics and market analysis.

Now entering its third year, the Initiative's Energy Research Seed Fund has so far awarded $450,000 to 13 teams to begin investigations in power grid reliability, solar energy, international energy and health, industrial energy efficiency, bioenergy, water reuse for shale gas development, and hydrogen production. In its first two years, seed-funded teams have involved 31 faculty, six postdocs, 10 Ph.D. students, and several undergraduate and professional students.

The Initiative also provides funding to Duke faculty for an Energy Research Seminar Series that brings in guests from other universities to describe their own energy-related research. And, as with the energy courses database, the Initiative's website houses a searchable listing of approximately 150 faculty and researchers across the university who are working in energy-related education and research.

Director Newell and Initiative staff also work on their own research projects, such as global energy forecast analyses prepared in collaboration with the International Energy Forum. The Initiative also has launched an Energy Data Analytics Lab dedicated to mining mountains of information for insights that can inform energy solutions. It is led by faculty co-directors Matt Harding (a big data economist) and Richard Newell, with managing director Kyle Bradbury.

Engagement refers to the Initiative's interactions with policy-makers and energy professionals to ensure that the innovations developed at Duke connect with the appropriate audiences and meet tangible needs outside academia.

The Energy Initiative has provided background analysis for the past two years to the International Energy Forum, a forum of 74 oil-producing and oil-consuming countries. "We provide independent and impartial information around which people can exchange views and make progress on important global energy issues," Newell said.

Engagement also brings energy professionals to campus to interact with students. Duke alumni are key players in this regard, donating their time and energy to meet with undergraduates and graduate students at Power Lunches and Mentoring Conversations.

Mark Florian (Trinity '80), managing director at the energy-focused investment firm First Reserve, said "it's a blast" interacting with students in these settings. "I decided eight years ago to focus on energy because it's so interesting and dynamic," he said.

He has talked to students about his experience as an investor in energy markets, sharing his thoughts on trends such as the shale gas phenomenon, the declining cost of renewables, and how issues like these affect the running of a power system. "I hope the students got some perspective out of it in terms of issues they can think about and dive into," he said. "They had great comments and great viewpoints."

Florian and his wife have funded the Mark and Lynne Florian Professorship in the Sanford School, which will support a faculty member focused on energy policy.

Increasing the number of faculty focused on energy has already begun across campus. Tom Katsouleas, the former dean of the Pratt School of Engineering, said the Initiative makes it possible to recruit leaders in the field because its presence and expanding work demonstrates Duke's commitment to energy and to interdisciplinary collaboration.

Katsouleas pointed to two recent faculty hires in Pratt's Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science: Professor David Mitzi and Associate Professor Olivier Delaire, both of whom focus on materials science as it relates to energy.

For the Nicholas School of the Environment, the Initiative supports a long-standing priority. "Our mission and the Initiative's are interwoven pretty tightly because energy and the environment are inextricably linked," said Alan Townsend, dean of the Nicholas School.

Among graduate students, energy and the environment is the fastest growing track in the master's degree program at the Nicholas School. Undergraduates consistently fill the energy gateway course taught by Professor Lincoln Pratson.

Townsend said several faculty members in the Nicholas School have received seed funding from the Initiative to support research on topics ranging from water management in shale gas development regions to clean cooking technology in India.

"Energy connects to everything central to human health and welfare," Townsend said. "And it has also created collateral damage and problems for us. We're increasingly confronting a world where business as usual won't cut it."

The natural instinct is often to turn solely to technology for the answers. "While we often understandably focus on the technological aspects of energy," Newell said, "market structures and policies related to the energy system are incredibly important pieces of the puzzle."

That's where the Fuqua School of Business comes in. As Boulding said, "If we can help people understand the business aspects of energy markets, then they are going to be in a better place to harness their environmental skills, their engineering skills, their regulatory skills to further advance solutions to our challenges."

Furthermore, students and faculty at the business school are experienced in using evidence-based strategies to help people of diverse backgrounds create solutions together.

"The real value of collaboration is when you get people who are very different to work together toward a common purpose," Boulding said. "We live in a world of extremism and polarity – people who hate each other over the sides they take. If we can bring those people across the bridge to work together, then we can unlock the power of those differences."

For all those at Duke involved in the Energy Initiative, bringing people together to find solutions – whether those solutions are based in technology, financing, or policy – is not just an academic interest, it's a passion and an imperative.

"We have an opportunity to change the world," Boulding said. "As we make choices around energy and environment, those choices could change the world for the better, but they could change the world for the worse if we're not thoughtful and careful. Let's be the place that creates the ideas and talent to make the world better."