Physics of Sustainable Energy: A Short Course

Pushpa Bhat and Rob Knapp

The Forum on Physics & Society (FPS) has been organizing 2-3 day short courses, periodically, on topics such as energy, global warming, nuclear weapons, arms race, etc. Three successful short-courses on “Physics of Sustainable Energy: Producing Energy Renewably and Using it Efficiently” have been held in the years 2008, 2011 and 2014, all at the University of California, Berkeley. There was a strong desire and support in the FPS executive committee to continue to organize this series, and to move it around the country to provide access to a broader audience. This year, we had the pleasure of organizing (along with Bob Rosner and George Crabtree) the fourth in the series, “Physics of Sustainable Energy - IV (PSE-IV)”, at the University of Chicago, during June 17-18, 2016. The short-course/conference was sponsored by the FPS, and co-sponsored by Fermi Research Alliance (FRA), Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago (EPIC).

The PSE-IV short-course was broadly formatted along the lines of its successful predecessors. It was aimed at researchers, faculty and students, and private and public sector professionals active in energy affairs. The primary goal was to provide an intense overview and facilitate discussion of the opportunities and obstacles facing sustainable production and use of energy in the United States. Eight sessions, over two full days, covered (1) Energy Landscape and Challenges, (2) Renewable Energy Technologies, (3) Nuclear Energy, (4) Energy efficiency, Sustainability, and Energy Security, (5) “Classical” Energy Storage Solutions, (6) Innovations in Energy Storage, (7) Energy Infrastructure and Distribution, and (8) Energy Policy. The scope of the participation was broadened, relative to the previous meetings, to include economists and energy policy experts, along with physicists, engineers, chemists, material scientists and technologists. This interdisciplinary approach made the conference very exciting and was praised as very beneficial by all those who participated.

Opening the conference, Peter Littlewood remarked that energy is money and that the electrical storage needs a revolution. Bob Rosner gave an overview of our energy challenges. Through the various sessions, attention to questions of implementation and policy was prominently noticeable at this meeting, reflecting the increasing maturity of the nationally significant supply technologies and a renewed awareness of the sheer scale of the system shifts required to make meaningful progress on carbon emissions. Almost all speakers emphasized electric power as the point-of-use form of supply, even for transportation. An interesting exception was Said Al-Hallej’s presentation on thermal storage in commercial buildings. Photovoltaics (Greg Wilson) and nuclear power generation (TanjuSofu, Charles Ferguson) both received solid discussion, outlining both the respective histories and the distinct challenges each must overcome over the next 5-10 years. There was repeated attention to questions of storage, both in technical terms (George Crabtree on batteries, Di-Jia Liu on hydrogen for vehicles) and in relation to the structure and management of the power grid (Leah Guzowski, Steve Cicala).

There was also sober discussion of the relation between projected and achieved reduction in energy use and carbon emission. A specific study of household weatherization (reported by Michael Greenstone) found results far short of expectation, highlighting the difficulties of scaling up energy efficiency. Additional cautions were sounded about whether reduced US fossil fuel use might not encourage increased use elsewhere, about the reliability of simulations for comparing policy alternatives, and about the needs for energy security as well as carbon reductions, among other issues.

There were a total of about 75 participants, including several undergraduate students from across the country. National labs, universities and the private sector were all represented and mutually engaged. Discussion from the floor was lively throughout, during the sessions and breaks. The conference banquet on June 17 featured a keynote speech by Congressman Bill Foster (IL-11).

This short summary cannot do justice to the range and substance of the two days of presentations and discussions. The detailed agenda and presentation slides of the talks are available at the following web site.

The American Institute of Physics will publish the conference proceedings. The attendees get a one-year free access to the online proceedings, and the printed proceedings are expected to be available by the end of the calendar year 2016.

The success of PSE-IV has left its local organizers with great enthusiasm and eagerness to propose hosting once again the next round, PSE-V, at EPIC at the University of Chicago, in 2018.

Pushpa Bhat

Rob Knapp
Evergreen State College

These contributions have not been peer-refereed. They represent solely the view(s) of the author(s) and not necessarily the view of APS.