Energy 2100: Building the future energy economy

by David Pacchioli
March 11, 2019

In May of 2018, environmental engineer Bruce Logan received funding from the provost’s office to launch Energy 2100,” a multi-year initiative to harness Penn State’s vast and wide-ranging activity in the area of renewable energy research. The goal, Logan says, is to maximize the University’s contributions toward creation of a carbon-neutral global energy economy by the turn of the next century. He recently sat down to answer a few questions about this effort.

What’s the inspiration for this initiative?

Richard Smalley, the late Nobel laureate, said energy is the single greatest challenge facing humanity. I would rephrase that slightly. How we produce energy we use is the single greatest environmental challenge facing humanity. We’ll always devise ways to make electricity and harvest energy in forms we need, but environmentally how we do that is really important. That’s what Energy 2100 is about.

The history of electricity has not been very complicated, right? Burn things. Burn things, make steam, and you make electricity. Nuclear energy is pretty much the same thing – you’re not burning, but you’re still producing steam to run turbines. If we’re not going to burn things, we need to think more carefully and more creatively about how we might make electricity. 

What’s the role of Energy 2100?

You know, Penn State is “the fossil fuel university.” That’s what we’re known for. It goes with our history. This state has gone from harvesting wood to burn in all the local iron furnaces, to being the major coal producer, to discovering oil in Pennsylvania. Now Marcellus gas has once again transformed the fossil fuel economy. And here we are sitting right in the middle of it. We have tremendous expertise in all of these areas. 

But there’s actually a lot of really great work going on at Penn State in renewable energy -- wind energy, solar. Hydrogen. We have people who are looking at dams and flood control, where we could be getting additional hydro-system energy. Salinity gradient energy. A lot of these renewable technologies can be intermittent, so you can’t do this without paying attention to energy storage. We have lots of expertise there, too.

Energy 2100 is about recognizing all these things we’re doing already, advertising what we’re doing, promoting it, and investing in this area going into the future. 

 

windmills and solar panels
IMAGE: GettyImages/republica

 

The federal and global subsidies for the oil industry are enormous. If we had similar investment in renewable technologies, we could be making a lot more progress. But even so, solar energy is now just as affordable a way to make electricity as natural gas. It’s doubling at a rate of about every two years, growing faster than cell phone use did in the early years. We’ve seen wind energy take over seven percent of electricity production. Energy 2100 is to say let’s take a comprehensive look at all of this. 

You talk about the need for many different solutions. 

That’s right. If you’re in London, maybe electric cars make sense. If you’re in the Midwest U.S., maybe it’s gasoline-powered cars. Maybe hydrogen. We seem to think that all vehicles have to function in all places at the same time, but in transportation, at least, I think we have to be open to all options -- electric, hydrogen, ethanol, gasoline, diesel. We don’t necessarily give any of these things up, but we ought to be using them more carefully. 

In urban areas, where you can make infrastructure changes that can save energy, that’s great. But what do you do for a farmer in rural Pennsylvania? I think you have to be aware of where you can have impact, where certain solutions are going to work, and where they’re not going to work. There are hot spots for wind energy – we should make the maximum use of those that we can. And there should be no excuse for the whole state of Arizona not having solar energy. 

Why 2100?

We don’t know what’s going to happen with sea level rise by the end of this century. The guesstimates go from two feet to two meters, and that doesn’t even include storm surges. We don’t know if it’s going to happen fast, or slowly and then fast, but we know that by 2100 sea level will be much higher, and will flood many cities and even states. 

So we have to think big. But we’re not going to completely redo the energy infrastructure of the planet in five years. Yes, we need to start today -- but this is going to be with us for another hundred years for sure. 

What have you done so far, and what’s next?

We’ve put together a series of two-pagers on different topics to identify strategic priorities for research and education. We will eventually write a report and submit it to the University administration, a statement of our vision. But you know one of the biggest things about strategic planning is not the final document. It’s the process – making people aware, creating an atmosphere of change. We’ve already started to do that. 

The next part, the most critical part, will be directing investment into this area. Getting department heads to start hiring more people with a focus on renewable energy technologies. We have a great effort in reducing energy consumption across our campuses, we have the Sustainability Institute, the Institutes of Energy & Environment, we’re doing all the right things. We have strong support at the top, from the provost and the President. The last link is the department heads, when they choose their next hires, set priorities. How much do they buy into the importance of this?

We can study climate change all we want, and predict better when we’re all going to suffer, but we already know we need to be doing things differently. Renewable, carbon neutral energy is a big part of the solution. 

Bruce Logan is Evan Pugh University Professor in Engineering and Stan & Flora Kappe Professor of Environmental Engineering, and leader of an interdisciplinary team that was awarded seed grant funding for “Energy 2100” one of 10 proposals funded as strategic initiative pilot programs in Spring 2018 by The Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost.  

Last Updated March 19, 2019