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Sparking a New Generation of Innovation in Energy

Shirley Ann Jackson, Ph.D.
President, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

Fremont, California

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Thank you, Daniel, for inviting me here today. It is wonderful to spend time among the innovators here at Solaria, and to observe in practice what the “leading edge” means when we are talking about energy production.

At Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, our people long have been at the leading edge — by design. We were founded at the right time and the right place: in 1824, making us the oldest technological university in the nation; and in Troy, New York, at the terminus of the Erie Canal, which opened one year later, in 1825, as a gateway that enabled commerce between the cities of the East Coast (via the Hudson River) and the Great Lakes. We also have a campus in Hartford, Connecticut, which provides graduate education to senior managers in the sciences, in technology-focused fields, and in management.

Rensselaer was founded to educate students in the use of science, and scientific methods, to further the “common purposes” of life. The idea was to engage students in interactive and self-directed learning, to discuss what they learned, and to teach others. In this way, science and technology would propagate from the Institute into the world.

Today, these two foundational ideas remain the essence of the Rensselaer education, and they are evident throughout our strategic roadmap, The Rensselaer Plan.

Through an increased focus on research as well, we are creating an intergenerational community of learners, creators, discoverers and designers, who are strongly engaged in the highest levels of study and research, and who are defining, approaching, and solving the most important questions and challenges of our time.

We have brilliant students, who come to us with very high SAT scores, and strong high school records. Many have been exposed to research in high school, and in addition to career intent in the sciences, engineering, and related fields, they have a broad array of interests — in sustainability, in the arts, and athletics — so they form a diverse and well-rounded community.

We offer them a very rigorous curriculum. We require all undergraduate students to complete courses in the life sciences, physics, and a math sequence — beginning with calculus. We emphasize student participation in research, and for engineering students, we require a senior capstone project, as well as an international experience — which we are beginning to implement for all of our undergraduate students. We have about 180 student-run clubs, and we offer living/learning communities in the arts and in sustainability.

Rensselaer was among the first universities in the nation to commit to entrepreneurship education and research across all of our schools and programs, because we believe all students benefit from an entrepreneurial outlook. This is a spirit that is pervasive across the campus, and we are known for the number of student innovations which have achieved broader success and successful commercialization.

We have been building thriving, focused, research communities with what we call “constellations,” each led by a distinguished senior faculty member, and composed of younger faculty, graduate students, and undergraduate students.

Our campus culture has “low walls.” We bring faculty, students, and other researchers together in an interdisciplinary way, because breakthrough innovations happen at the intersections of the disciplines.

We enable these collaborations with three new interdisciplinary platforms. The first is our Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies, a state of the art facility which houses life sciences and bioengineering research laboratories. The second is our Computational Center for Nanotechnology Innovations, which houses one of the fastest supercomputers in the world. It is one of very few at a university world-wide. The third platform is unlike any other at a university at all. It is our amazing Curtis R. Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center — a platform for innovations in the arts, certainly, but also a research facility with broad applications in modeling, visualization, and auralization. It has only been open for 17 months, but it already is generating interest around the world.

The cross-pollination of ideas enabled within these platforms has led to a flexible “paper battery,” made of cellulosic material, which could have applications in medicine, because it appears to be implantable within the body. Another advance is a fully-synthetic version of the blood-thinner heparin, developed after instances of contamination in the biologically-derived drug. We are developing “biochips,” which are cell cultures that allow a rapid screening of the toxicity of drug candidates without the need for animal testing.

In the energy arena, we are making strides toward the development of green LED lighting, on the way toward achieving a true white light — which would have applications in next-generation monitors and displays.

In the realm of solar energy, we launched the unprecedented Baruch ‘60 Center for Biochemical Solar Energy Research, which seeks to unleash the energy-converting power of living plants through a better understanding of their chemical processes. This is a new arena that is just beginning to be explored, and Rensselaer is at the leading edge.

And, Rensselaer researchers have developed the darkest (most light-absorbent) material ever invented, a novel material with potential application in the solar industry.

We launched the collaborative Center for Architecture Science and Ecology (CASE) in New York City, in partnership with one of the world’s leading architectural firms, Skidmore, Owings and Merrill. An example of the developments coming out of CASE is a so-called “bio-wall,” or “green-wall,” set to work in conjunction with the existing HVAC system of a building, to reduce energy loads and improve indoor air quality. This semi-permeable bio-wall is constructed to house hydroponic plants, such as certain ivies known to absorb specific toxins. Air moves through a perforated air intake duct and directly over the exposed plant roots, allowing root rhizomes to essentially digest airborne toxins.

So — when our graduates leave the invigorating and collaborative environment at Rensselaer, they are well-grounded in the fundamentals of their disciplines. They can identify, understand and solve complex challenges, and they are able to do so with a comprehension and understanding of the broader global and social context. They have attained a level of sophistication, and an intellectual agility to see connections among disciplines and among sectors.

They need these attributes, because they are entering a world of tremendous societal complexity. Many challenges are without borders — such as energy security and climate change, the restructuring of the international finance system, energy security, disease prevention and mitigation, water and food safety, terrorism and civil unrest.

Given the field in which you work, let me illustrate by speaking briefly about energy security — one of our most urgent challenges, inextricably linked with our economic and national security. I use the term energy security rather than “energy independence,” because there is no energy independence. Of the approximately 190 counties in the world, not one is totally energy independent — nor is likely to be, any time soon.

Many converging factors make it obvious that a comprehensive global energy system restructuring has begun. We are challenged to think about energy in new ways. The combined forces of energy supply uncertainty, rising energy costs — even though tempered recently by the global recession — and concerns about climate change are major drivers of global energy restructuring.

New energy markets are developing worldwide, with opportunity and options for new players. New resource-rich nations are changing the terms of reference for traditional energy behemoths, especially with regard to oil and gas supply. Nations are realigning in new ways, shifting old alliances. Corporations are swiftly realigning their priorities, changing how they do business, and making investments to secure market opportunity. Climate change mitigation and new markets, also, are driving new trading schemes, and investments in new sources and new technologies. Oil-generated wealth and other actors are changing who plays in global financial markets.

As we shape our national energy goals and strategies, we must understand and account for this comprehensive global energy system restructuring, its impact on markets, and national alignments.

This challenge is not new. In 1973, President Nixon called for energy independence responding to the OPEC oil embargo. Project Independence lowered highway speeds, converted power plants to coal, prompted completion of the Trans-Alaskan pipeline, and diverted federal highway construction funds to mass transit. The Ford Administration made attempts toward securing our national oil supply — the Strategic Petroleum Reserve was a notable accomplishment.

While President Carter’s characterization of the energy problem as “the moral equivalent of war” was widely mocked, it produced a comprehensive National Energy Plan stressing conservation, renewable energy, and research. Though his program soon lost momentum, some proposals — such as building, appliance, and automobile fleet efficiency standards — were enacted and have endured — to our benefit.

The pattern of advance and retreat on energy policy has been repeated over the past several decades. Every few years, an event — the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, rolling brown outs here in California, drill rig and refinery damage from Hurricane Katrina, rising prices at the gasoline pumps, and so on — stirs attention, trepidation, and short-lived action.

This time, we must get the goal right. This time, we must find real, lasting solutions. Not only must we reformulate our relationships to energy — as a nation, and as consumers — we, also, must seize economic opportunities, and embrace new industries that will emerge to sustain and to grow our economy, as a result of what may seem a painful exercise today.


That means we must know where we are, and where we must go.

I would define energy security as having an adequate and sustainable supply of energy to meet the needs and aspirations of citizens, commercial enterprises, and public sector entities, and to provide that supply in as environmentally benign a way as possible. The practical definition — that is, the set of strategies for achieving energy security — varies according to nation and region. To achieve this for the United States, we must build a comprehensive security energy roadmap. At its core, it should adhere to six basic principles:

First — redundancy of supply and diversity of source — where optimum source is linked to specific sector of use. This entails maximizing domestic production and ensuring reliable sources for necessary fuel imports. This provides protection against supply disruption events, such as natural disasters or geopolitical instability, and a hedge against price volatility.

Second — support for well-functioning energy markets. This includes transparency of fuel pricing and other energy generation costs, as well as mechanisms to secure financing for long-term strategic investments. The latter is frequently a sticking point for developing countries, and sometimes developed ones. This may require new schemes and instruments for trading in energy markets, while monitoring to avoid intense speculation or market manipulation that can drive volatility.

Third — investment in sound infrastructure for energy generation, transmission, and distribution, including the necessary regulatory and operational protocols to ensure the safe, secure, and reliable performance of refineries, power plants, manufacturing plants, the electrical grid, and other facilities.

Fourth — providing for environmental sustainability and energy conservation, with calculation of full lifecycle costs, including the environmental impact of every proposal, program, and product, and the cost (including carbon cost) of energy source development from production through use and eventual disposal.

Fifth — policy alternatives must include consistency of regulation, and transparent price signals. An example relates to the carbon content of fuels, processes, and commercial and consumer goods. Congress has focused on reducing carbon content or carbon dioxide production from point sources through financial incentives — primarily through a cap-and-trade system for carbon dioxide in which allowances would be sold, and the amounts of allowance would ratchet down every year. Many in the business community have proposed a carbon tax to induce reduction of carbon dioxide emissions.

Companies are beginning to consider the carbon and energy content of their products — sometimes in anticipation of regulation, sometimes for good business reasons. However, many do not or cannot measure carbon dioxide emission in their complete supply chains. The feasibility of either a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system will depend upon consistent definition and measurement of the true carbon content of products and processes.

Sixth — linking optimum source to sector of use. This entails thinking strategically about how each usage sector — electricity generation, residential and commercial heating/cooling, construction, transportation, etc. — is matched to the supply source that will be most efficient, cost effective, sustainable, and reliable.

This principle suggests that we ask not only where conversion from fossil fuels is possible, but where it is possible first. While ground transportation may run acceptably on electricity, airlines, clearly, cannot. Source for sector of use suggests that we may want to reserve a portion of our fossil fuel to the airline industry, which supports about 33 million jobs internationally, accounts for 7.5 percent of the global domestic product, and is essential to the global economy. If a decision is taken to promote plug-in hybrid vehicles, the resulting greater dependency on electricity and the power plant fuel and capacity to generate that electricity must be taken into account.


In addition to these principles, a comprehensive energy security formula must support continuing, robust innovation — both in terms of technological advances, as well as business process innovations, and policy alternatives.

We must innovate the technologies that conserve energy and protect the environment. And, we must innovate the technologies that lead to alternative energy sources, that are reliable, cost-effective, safe, as environmentally benign as possible, and sustainable.

Innovation and investment in both existing and new technologies are important. The challenges are great, but provide tremendous economic opportunity. For existing technologies, as you are well aware here in California, developments in wind, solar, and nuclear are showing great potential.

WIND: Wind power has been called the “new oil.” New blade designs and innovation and flexible composite materials have cut downtimes-- resulting in electricity costs of about 8 cents per kilowatt-hour(kwh)— competitive with natural gas and even coal-fired power stations, were they retrofitted for carbon capture and sequestration. Smarter grids using direct, rather than alternating current, can extend transport over longer distances and underwater, and help to mitigate irregular wind patterns.

SOLAR: Solar is another alternative where costs have fallen dramatically, from the 50 cents per kilowatt-hour that was the standard in 1995. According to the Solar Electricity Price Index put out by the NDP group, that cost has fallen to below 20 cents per kilowatt-hour so far in 2010 — and I expect that all of you here at Solaria Corporation are working hard to drive that number down still further. Current systems utilize photovoltaic cells, helostatic mirror or lens systems for steam-based electricity generation, or an intriguing experimental combination of the two. Research and development in novel nanomaterials — and in chemically-derived solar power, as we are exploring at Rensselaer, are likely to lead to additional breakthroughs in this sector.

NUCLEAR: Nuclear power, in principle, satisfies many optimum requirements for enhancing energy security with minimal environmental impact. The complete cycle, from resource extraction to waste disposal, emits only about 2-6 grams of carbon equivalent per kilowatt-hour — about the same as wind and solar, if one includes construction and component manufacturing — and is about two orders of magnitude below coal, oil, and natural gas. Nuclear energy can supply the stable baseload capacity needed to support large urban centers, and to stabilize large electrical grids.

Operating costs are low, although nuclear power plants are capital-intensive, and require a sophisticated regulatory infrastructure to ensure independent safety oversight and strong safety performance.

Accounting for all costs, new nuclear power plants can produce electricity at a cost of between 4.9 and 5.7 cents per kilowatt-hour. The “Achilles’ Heel” is management and disposal of spent nuclear fuel. Global annual nuclear waste generation — about 10,000 tons, with 2,000 tons yearly from the U.S. — is small, when contrasted with the 29 billion tons of fossil fuel carbon waste released annually into the atmosphere. But, it is waste that must be handled very carefully. Public opinion likely will remain skeptical until a waste repository or other fuel cycle closure solutions are demonstrated.


Part of the investment in existing technologies must be renewal of key aspects of our national infrastructure — long a concern. California brown-outs and rolling blackouts, hurricane damage to Gulf-based drill rigs and refineries are graphic illustrations of the need both to sustain our existing infrastructure, and to expand and smarten up our infrastructure in order to accommodate new energy sources and baseload. We cannot take full advantage of new technologies without it.


To spark a new generation of innovation in energy we need intense national focus on a common set of goals, with sustained financial support, and strong public engagement. We need our scientists and engineers.

What roadblocks stand in the way? Three things:

  • the absence of a comprehensive national energy strategy;
  • a lack of sustained funding for scientific research and technological innovation; and
  • a failure to engage and educate the public in a meaningful way about the linkages of energy security, climate change, and job creation.

Federal investment in scientific research, as a percentage of GDP, had been shrinking for much of the last 30 years. This has changed somewhat with government support through stimulus funds targeted to energy-related research, but there has to be more, and sustained support including on the part of the energy industry itself.

It takes decades to educate a high performance engineer or a scientific researcher. We must invest now and invest more in teaching young people math and science.

There is enormous untapped opportunity to spark the imagination of our young people to take on one of the great global challenges of our time. There truly is a “new frontier” in today’s global energy and environmental challenges. Our young people stand to discover new and alternative energy sources and to develop technologies that will conserve energy and protect the environment. We must do everything possible to ignite and sustain their motivation and enable their scientific pursuits.

We must educate their parents — the broader public, if we want sustained national commitment to this new future.

Leadership from the top is required.

These are a few thoughts. Thank you.

Source citations are available from the division of Strategic Communications and External Relations, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. Statistical data contained herein were factually accurate at the time it was delivered. Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute assumes no duty to change it to reflect new developments.

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