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What is higher education’s role in tackling the energy crisis?

By Lee Kump

Many of us will remember 2022 as a year that brought the reality of climate change closer to home. The impacts were hard to ignore: catastrophic heat waves followed by flooding in Pakistan, drought and disappearing rivers across Europe, and major flooding throughout the United States were just a few of the disasters that marked a year of extremes. Now that we have moved into a new year, I’m struck yet again by the urgency of the situation and the critical role that institutions of higher education play in combatting climate change, while also addressing the need for energy transition.

Nationwide, some progress has been made — notably this year’s Inflation Reduction Act that targets net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. Unfortunately, the road to net-zero is bumpy and not well-defined, but what we do to limit harmful emissions and remove carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses from our atmosphere is the best way we can reduce global warming. As a geoscientist who studies global environmental change, past and present, and serves as the John Leone Dean in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State — where researchers and students alike work to find better climate solutions and energy answers — I have the privilege of working with those who are inheriting the massive challenge of implementing sustainable solutions to get us to net-zero in just a few decades.

So how do we support this transition? 

To start, in spring 2022, my colleagues and I at Penn State hosted a roundtable on energy and climate [] with experts from several large energy and utility companies, as well as leaders at the Department of Energy and other public-sector agencies and nonprofits. The group discussed how the U.S. could develop an energy system with zero net greenhouse gases by 2050.  

The assembled experts agreed — predictably — that there is not an on-and-off switch for how we transition energy. Instead, a broad array of technologies to support net-zero carbon energy production, including some legacy technologies and fuels such as natural gas, were discussed. Fossil fuels will likely remain a critical source of energy, supporting the global economy for the near future, and carbon capture and storage at a massive scale will be necessary to meet emissions reductions targets. Renewable energy sources, especially wind and solar power, coupled with electrification will increasingly support our energy needs, but issues of critical minerals supply, energy storage, and expanded distribution-related infrastructure needs will limit the rate of electrification. Expanded electricity generation from nuclear energy, including safer, small modular nuclear reactors with recycled fuel, could help. But let me be clear, we are likely approaching a tipping point and must act quickly to transition the nation’s energy systems while maintaining reliability.    

As our country moves through its necessary energy transition, so too must higher education. That requires colleges and universities to arm today’s students with the skills that will help them perform in the current dynamics of the nation that still depends on fossil fuels but teach them in an agile way that enables these fundamental skills to transfer to new technologies. For example, petroleum engineering majors can use their comprehensive understanding of the subsurface to develop leak-resistant carbon and hydrogen storage reservoirs and expand the exploitation of geothermal energy. Mining engineering students can expand their training to include sustainable approaches to developing a circular economy of critical minerals that support renewable energy. Embracing a mix of research and technologies, both old and new, is the powerful combination needed to move us forward.  

The energy transition is complicated and messy, but our response need not be. By offering a multidisciplinary systems approach, institutions can prepare students for the reality of an energy transition that is happening in real time. Knowledge can be shared and built upon, and we can adapt as we learn, together. The laser focus on providing students with the knowledge that will not only increase their marketability upon graduation but provide the skills required for future careers will simultaneously help the world transition to a more sustainable energy landscape.  

But efforts must go beyond education. Campuses too, can reflect a more sustainable existence. At Penn State, we share the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050 and we are proud of the variety of programs and partnerships working toward that effort. For example, in 2020, we began purchasing renewable electricity generated from three Lightsource bp solar farms. As a result, 25% of our university’s power over the next 25 years will be provided by the largest solar farm in Pennsylvania history, helping us meet our goals of reducing greenhouse gases and regenerating farmland. In addition, the university has reduced its campus greenhouse gas emissions by 42% since 2005.  

Lastly, institutions of higher learning must embrace their position in society. While government and industry can often be met with skepticism on topics related to climate change, higher education can be seen as a space to cultivate knowledge and connection to solve these problems for humanity. The roundtable discussion we held this year concluded that the ability to bring together thought leaders for meaningful discussion may be one of the best opportunities to influence the energy transition now and in the future.  

We have an enormous responsibility to educate, support and inspire the leaders who will shape our future. The energy transition is ongoing, and complex — like most difficult and broad challenges. As educators, innovators and knowledge seekers, let us remember our mission to prepare students to face both the reality of today and the possibility of tomorrow. Our planet depends upon it. 

 Lee Kump is the John Leone Dean of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences at Penn State. 

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