Initiative seeks to put Penn State at forefront of energy security, independence

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. – Penn State is poised to solidify its role as a cutting-edge leader among universities in driving the world’s conversation about the future of energy, President Eric Barron told the University’s Board of Trustees on Nov. 20. Barron highlighted a new initiative to marshal the University’s vast expertise in a wide range of disciplines with the goal of tackling the world’s energy challenges, improving national energy security and independence, and further strengthening Pennsylvania’s status as a national leader in energy production and innovation.

DOWNLOAD: Access the president’s presentation here.

Penn State’s progress in this area will tie directly into many aspects of the forthcoming strategic plan and capital campaign, which together will deliberately focus the University’s collective efforts on core strategic goals and strengths. Among those strengths, Barron said, is broad and deep expertise in all aspects of energy-related research, teaching and service.

Through a comprehensive, institution-wide approach, additional investment, and deeper collaboration with industry, Barron plans to position Penn State as the energy university -- the “go to” institution for any aspect of energy.

“Humanity is facing tremendous challenges, change and opportunity when it comes to the ways in which we create, understand and interact with energy in the 21st century. Penn State is uniquely positioned to take the lead as society tackles these issues,” Barron said. “We are at the very upper echelon of universities in the energy arena. Penn State produces top-notch workforce leaders, who along with groundbreaking research and scholarship are prepared to shape our energy future.”

In the next 25 years alone, the world’s energy requirements are projected to increase by 50 percent, Barron said. At the same time, world leaders continue their work to find ways to advance efficiency and effectiveness, and to move national economies toward renewable power. There is a pressing need, he said, to increase global energy security through development of safe, clean, abundant and affordable energy.

Penn State already is among the top five universities in the nation in scholarly output in five key energy categories. These include:

  • Energy policy, economics and law including incentives, geopolitics, laws and regulations at all levels of government, and the processes, values, and ethics shaping the laws.
  • Fossil fuels: maximizing efficiency including extraction, conversion, combustion, transportation, carbon capture and sequestration;
  • Renewable energy (including photovoltaics, wind, hydro, biofuels and conversion of waste to energy) and nuclear energy;
  • Systems/Technology (smart city, smart systems): grid technology, vehicle and building efficiency, energy storage and management; and
  • Environmental impact: energy-water-food nexus, carbon footprint, climate change and land use.

Penn State is the only university that appears in the top five in each category, with more than 320 investigators conducting research in these areas. In order to raise Penn State’s profile as the energy university, Barron’s goal is to advance efforts in all five categories.

The University’s research and educational efforts extend across all academic colleges, all 24 campus locations and the online World Campus, interdisciplinary research institutes and agricultural extension. Penn State offers more than 30 undergraduate and graduate degrees, and more than 20 workforce development and continuing education programs, with a focus in energy.

Such an abundance of expertise and learning capacity across a wide range of disciplines makes this initiative a natural fit for the University, said Susan Welch, dean of the College of the Liberal Arts.

Since late summer, Welch has been part of ongoing conversations among University leaders, including academic deans, faculty and others, to discuss the initial trajectory of the effort. From the start, she said, the goal has been to create an initiative that casts a wide net over the University in search of research, educational and outreach programs, not just in traditionally energy-focused areas, but in other areas such as law and, in her case, the liberal arts.

“I think this is a very forward-looking idea, and it’s refreshing to see an initiative that is broad enough to incorporate the human sciences and humanistic areas, where issues of energy play out in real life,” Welch said. “We’re not going to have changes in energy policy, for example, without an understanding of what motivates people to accept or resist sustainability practices; without an understanding of the impacts of different policies on society, , and without understanding the ethical values that underpin how we make decisions about who bears costs and who reaps benefits of different energy alternatives. We’re talking about psychology; sociology; political science; economics. The human dimension of this conversation is incredibly important.”

James W. Houck, interim dean and Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Penn State Law and the School of International Affairs, said a comprehensive approach will be critical to the effort’s long-term success.

“This is about having Penn State make a tangible, beneficial contribution not only in the science and technology disciplines, but to an area with broad social and political implications for our country and the world,” Houck said.

In order for the University to have deeper involvement, all aspects of issues affecting energy must be considered, he said. For example, the legal and regulatory systems form the very foundation of the domestic and international conversation about energy policy and regulation.

“This is not just a Pennsylvania issue or a national issue; it’s truly a global issue in terms of understanding the world’s energy markets, and understanding the way energy policy and decisions become part of the broader context of the relationship between states,” Houck said. “Some would argue nations go to war over energy supplies. So in that respect it becomes profoundly important to understand how energy and energy decisions factor into international relations.”

Though the initiative is still in its formative stages, Penn State faculty, staff and students in every corner of the state will be involved as efforts grow into 2016 and beyond.

“Virtually every facet of this institution can engage in this initiative, and that includes our campuses,” said Neil Sharkey, Penn State’s vice president for research. “Many of our campuses are very close to areas whose economies have relied on coal, oil and gas over time. Our campuses have numerous educational programs focused on energy issues. And it’s not just about research. Penn State does an excellent job of educating future leaders who will be charged with implementing new technologies and sustainable approaches to energy management.”

Tom Richard, professor of agricultural and biological engineering, and director of the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment, has been closely involved as the initiative has started to form. Now, he said, is the time for Penn State to make bold moves to the forefront on these issues.

“The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that carbon dioxide emissions are already costing society $40 per ton, which this year translates to $640 for every American, $200 billion for the nation as a whole. That includes lost food production due to drought and flooding, unprecedented forest fires, loss of economic activity, and damage caused by extreme weather,” Richard said. “Yet for billions of people in countries around the world, increasing energy access and affordability are essential for human development and economic growth.”

“Penn State’s strong tradition of interdisciplinary research is already beginning to enable the dramatic energy transformation needed to satisfy these competing demands,” Richard said. “We are educating the next generation of energy leaders, and we are engaged with business, government and industry to innovate and excel. Penn State is poised to put the Commonwealth and the nation on a trajectory to not only meet our energy challenges, but forge them into opportunities - drawing manufacturing back to the region and building a vibrant, clean energy economy for the future.”

As the initiative expands over the coming months, Barron said Penn State’s leadership will continue to work to identify investments that will create even greater excellence in faculty leadership, industry expertise, state-of-the-art infrastructure and thinking, and continued excellence in the education of tomorrow’s energy leaders. This will involve direct engagement with partners across Penn State and beyond, appropriate commitment of University resources and creation of a fundraising plan for the initiative as the capital campaign begins.

“Penn State brings critical resources and thought leadership to our evolving relationship with energy,” Barron said. “When people are seeking knowledge about any aspect of energy, when industry needs an answer to a major challenge, when potential donors are hoping to help the world toward solutions for these issues, we want them to think of Penn State as the place to come for answers.”

Last Updated December 15, 2015