By Sierra Juarez
Students participating in the UT Energy Symposium, a one credit hour course sponsored by the Energy Institute, never have to worry about hearing the same presentation twice. The popular guest lecture series, now in its 11th semester, features a wide assortment of speakers from industry, government, academia and the non-profit world.
Each Thursday evening students are treated to a new speaker’s views of today’s rapidly evolving energy world. Below are summaries of some of this semester’s guest lectures, recapped by Sierra Juarez, a UT Austin Journalism student and Energy Institute intern.
Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam
Complex systems can predict the effect of deregulation on the economy, asserted Dr. Yaneer Bar-Yam, a specialist in system sciences, during the Sept. 15 installment of the UT Energy Symposium. Complex systems are a multifaceted field of study that integrates chemistry, physics, biology and social sciences into mathematical equations.
“One of the big shifts that is happening right now is that we are finally looking at patterns across all sorts of data,” Dr. Bar-Yam said during his talk.
Dr. Bar-Yam is the Founding President of the New England Complex Systems Institute, a research driven organization that studies the way in which complex systems are applicable to a wide range of issues including, but not exclusive to, biodiversity and ethnic violence.
He contends that complex systems are the best means to understanding the far-reaching effects of certain patterns and interactions on the economy and the environment. Complex systems also have the potential to be applied to prospective sustainable energy systems.
Dr. Bar-Yam’s research also could be useful in understanding the many factors involved in making a sustainable energy system successful. For example, complex system mathematics could potentially foresee issues and outcomes of introducing new energy systems.
Marilu Hastings, Vice President of the Sustainability Program for the Cynthia and George Mitchell Foundation and a member of the Energy Institute’s Advisory Board, said her organization’s funding for cleaner climate and energy research has increased by nearly a ten-fold within eight years.
Hastings, speaking at the Sept. 22 UT Energy Symposium, discussed philanthropy’s role in transitioning to cleaner sources of energy. The Mitchell Foundation has provided roughly $5 million in funding for energy research between 2012 – 2015 at UT Austin alone, she noted.
“This is a claim that can’t be made for any other philanthropic endeavor,” Hastings said. “Climate and energy have become more urgent and widely publicized.”
“People want to feel like their dollar is going to matter. People want to fund something close to their heart,” she said of philanthropic donations.
Cynthia and George Mitchell were dedicated to the pursuit of sustainable sciences throughout their lifetimes and created the grant-making Foundation in 1978. The Foundation is focused on strategic philanthropy to ensure that grants are awarded to researchers attempting to solve environmental issues.
Texas’ ranking as the nation’s energy producer and largest emitter of carbon emissions has led the Foundation to provide grants funds solely to researchers involved in developing cleaner energy technologies in Texas.
Customers’ options are increasingly expanding when it comes to electricity, noted Virginia Lacy, a Principal in the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Electricity Practice during her Oct. 6 UT Energy Symposium lecture.
Advances in technology have lowered the price of wind and solar energy to the point where they are competitive with electricity produced from more conventional sources, including coal and natural gas.
“Wind and solar are becoming more viable on the wholesale market,” she said.
During her talk, Lacy discussed the prospects for creating a transformative, clean and economically prosperous electricity business model. Such a business model will more effectively meet the needs of customers and have an overall positive effect on the environment.
In 2015, regulators, lawmakers or utilities in 46 states enacted or proposed policy changes relating to the price of solar energy. In general, these changes have enabled electricity customers to have more direct control over the electricity they purchase and consume. In many cases, the policy changes have helped make it easier for residential customers to generate their own electricity, rather than continue to purchase power from the electric grid, she added.
Lacy works is helping to implement a model in New York model that will more efficiently address customers interested in pursuing so-called distributed energy in ways that are economically beneficial to them. She said the New York model will need to focus on many other issues other than economics, however, including maintaining a system that ensures all customers have access to electricity that is affordable and reliable.
“For people that don’t care about solar and green power, but instead are worried about putting food on the table, we need to worry about them too,” she noted.
Sierra Juarez is a second-year Journalism student and Energy Institute intern.