2017 Energy Institute Annual Report: Director's Message

Wednesday, July 26, 2017
UMEI Director Mark Barteau

It is difficult to imagine a more precipitous pivot from the energy, environment and climate policies of the Obama administration to those of the Trump administration. Coal, domestic oil and gas, and pipelines are in; the Clean Power Plan and CAFE standards are in suspended animation; the U.S. has announced its withdrawal from the Paris agreement, and climate change is not to be spoken of in Federal agencies. One could be forgiven a feeling of whiplash. Against this backdrop, the work of the Energy Institute and its faculty affiliates has taken on new urgency.

Imagine, for a moment, what a world on the path to limiting global warming to 2° C might look like in 20 years. It will have gone through not only the energy transformations that we are experiencing now, such as widespread replacement of coal by natural gas for energy generation, but a further transition to carbon-free energy sources on the scale of our current fossil fuel consumption. It will have seen significant decarbonization of the transportation sector, beginning with electrification of the vehicle fleet — especially for personal transportation — and will have further transitioned toward automated and shared mobility solutions. It will have seen at least initial deployments at scale of carbon dioxide removal solutions. And it will have seen wide participation in these transitions by populations in both the developed and developing worlds as they witness the improvement of their own lives and those of their children.

It’s a tall order, and one that will not follow a linear path from our present energy systems. Nevertheless, it provides a useful context for the activities and motivation of the Energy Institute.

This report highlights some of our large and visible initiatives that are driving toward this vision. Our Battery Lab, the product of significant financial partnership between the University, Ford, and the Michigan Economic Development Corporation, is a critical enabler of the transition from fossil fuels to electrification of transportation. Now in its second year, the lab’s facilities are heavily utilized by companies large and small, and by university researchers. We continue to grow our capabilities for materials and performance analysis, and have brought online new capabilities for fabricating solid–state batteries. From being featured on NOVA, from our new Battery Short Course, from our presentations at scientific conferences and trade shows, the word is getting out: the University of Michigan is a leading place for the energy storage R&D that will transform both our vehicles and our electric grid. And it’s not just about batteries; a recent report from the Brookings Institute shows that Ann Arbor is first nationally in the density of cleantech patents.

Our Beyond Carbon Neutral initiative is aimed at the creation of carbon dioxide removal (CDR) solutions that we and others believe will be an essential complement to emissions reduction in order to contain global temperatures. Now in its second year, this initiative has captured the imagination of faculty across the university, as well as of university leaders and outside organizations. Our two rounds of seed funding for projects, as well as our BCN seminar series featuring leading researchers from other institutions, are beginning to bear fruit in terms of publications, funding and partnerships. A distinctive feature of Beyond Carbon Neutral is the integration of social science research with the natural sciences and engineering efforts related to the biosphere and technology solutions.

Our commitment to societal engagement is part of everything we do, not only in research but in our thought leadership, convening and educational activities. The University of Michigan Energy Survey, a partnership with the Institute of Social Research now in its fourth year, provides timely information about consumers’ attitudes toward energy reliability, affordability, and environmental impacts. Against the backdrop of large shifts at the federal level away from emphasizing clean energy, we find consumers’ concerns about the environmental impacts of energy supply and use consistently exceeding their level of concern about affordability or reliability.

The reputation of the Energy Institute as a thought leader and convener of thought leaders continues to grow. As news organizations have sought to explain the post-election transitions in energy and climate policy, Energy Institute experts have found themselves in increasing demand to provide perspective, analysis and commentary. The Conversation continues to be a valuable forum for perspectives articles, while the range of appearances of UMEI faculty providing insights in the media has ranged from regional to national to international outlets, including Time, the AP, NPR, Science, Scientific American, and The Washington Post. Our conferences on “Combating Climate Change: the Role of Nuclear Power”, and our third annual “Transportation, Economics, Energy, and Environment Conference" (TE3 ) both attracted national and international figures, and program planning for the fourth annual TE3 conference in October 2017 is well underway.

We have also devoted substantial efforts to campus and community engagement, and are beginning to see the payoffs there. The past year’s organization of our participation in Energy Institute-supported events like “Energy and the 2016 elections,” “Building a Sustainable Life,” and the “Pipeline Town Hall” drew substantial student interest and participation. An Energy Institute-organized automotive futures seminar by noted environmentalist and Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins was standing room only. Building on these successes, we are partnering with the Michigan Ross Energy Club to organize a symposium called: "Energy and the States: How can states and municipalities influence their energy futures in the Trump era?" During Summer 2017, we partnered with the City of Ann Arbor to assess opportunities for microgrids to power key installations in the city. This project is being carried out by a broad-based student team, with guidance by UMEI, faculty from the Program in the Environment, the city, and professionals from local companies who have volunteered their time. We are also partnering with U-M's Duderstadt Center on a student competition for student groups to visualize the University of Michigan’s carbon footprint. This competition, dubbed Energy+ Emissions, will culminate in presentation and judging of student efforts in early December, with $15,000 of prize money at stake.

Finally, 2017 marks the University of Michigan’s 200th anniversary, and we have been engaged in bicentennial events large and small. Our home, the Phoenix Memorial Lab, was the site of one of seven pop-up art installations by Bicentennial Professor Martha Jones, titled Stumbling Blocks, intended to stimulate discussions about different aspects of the University’s legacy. The graphics displayed on our building associated the research of the Phoenix Project with a greener earth, and the accompanying text contained the following statement from the Energy Institute:

“The Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, the antecedent of President Eisenhower’s Atoms for Peace program, is a wonderful example of moving past the destructive consequences of war to create scientific advances to benefit humankind. The University of Michigan Energy Institute is proud of our work toward a cleaner energy future, inspired by the legacy of the Phoenix Project. We hope that our efforts will serve to honor all who have made the ultimate sacrifice to make this a better world.” 

The REFRESCH project, funded in connection with the Bicentennial as part of the University’s Third Century Initiative, is engaging our faculty and students in the solution of food, energy and water challenges in the developing world. Its growing partnerships with communities, universities and public institutions in Gabon are impacting lives on both sides, from the incredible field experiences of Michigan students to the installations and educational programs that are expanding in Gabon. It provides us all with a humbling reminder that the sustainability of our planet depends not just on the development of new technologies, but on the engagement and commitment of the world’s peoples, individually and collectively. And those actions cannot wait for the dawning of the fourth century, either of the University of Michigan or of the American republic. ​

Energy Institute Director Mark Barteau