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Going, Going, Green

Aug. 21, 2007

Baylor is making strides to become more energy efficient and environmentally friendly by investing in its greatest fundamental resource: its students. In addition to offering traditional courses like Larry Lehr's new upper level offering this fall, "ENV 4365: The Environment and Energy," Lehr and two other professors are teaming up to lead one of Baylor's three new Engaged Learning Groups (ELGs). Kenneth Van Treuren, professor of mechanical engineering in the School of Engineering and Computer Science; Ian Gravagne, assistant professor, Engineering and Computer Science; and Lehr, senior lecturer, Environmental Studies, will lead the ELG, which provides incoming freshmen the unique opportunity to meet for weekly lectures and discussions about a particular issue. ELGs are the latest opportunities for a residential learning experience open to first-year students entering in 2007.

"The Energy and Society ELG is for students interested in the intersection of science, environment, politics, economics and religion," says Gravagne. "The Energy ELG research theme, 'Baylor as an energy efficiency and alternative energy laboratory,' will be the frosting on the cake, giving students the option to investigate the practical dimensions of their studies. Add to this planned extra and co-curricular activities, and the entire package will promote meaningful and long-lasting relationships between faculty and students."

Baylor Magazine caught up with Gravagne, Van Treuren and Lehr this summer to learn how the worldwide green movement is pertinent at Baylor and beyond. Excerpts from the interviews follow.

Baylor Magazine: How is Baylor educating people about energy?

Gravagne: First, there is the issue of public education. Dr. Van Treuren and I approached directors at the Mayborn Museum and found them quite interested in developing an energy education theme. To start, the Baylor/Waco Foundation provided $25,000 in funds to create a small exhibit on the topic of alternative energy and energy efficiency, which we will hopefully complete later this year. It will discuss technologies like wind and photovoltaic power, and also show how heat conducts through various types of walls and windows. It will have working examples and some interactive elements as well. But most importantly, it represents a small start toward public education in our area.

Then there is the issue of course curriculum. To that end, the electrical and mechanical engineering departments as well as Environmental Studies have begun to ramp up technical electives specifically directed toward energy. Also, Dr. Van Treuren, Dr. Lehr and I took advantage of a unique new opportunity at Baylor to craft a residential learning community around the subject of energy. We are excited because doing justice to the complex issue of energy takes time and a very interdisciplinary approach. The learning community will permit a group of about 35 freshmen with a mix of majors to stick with us for four consecutive semesters as we study energy and its associated political, environmental, social and economic ramifications, all while earning academic credit. We want students to think about energy not as a dry technical topic, but as one full of interesting questions like: How do we get people to change the way they think about energy? What is the connection between energy and poverty, or energy and environmental justice? How will the tension between modern growth economies and fundamental energy limitations work itself out?

Van Treuren: We have a wind turbine model, designed and fabricated by students, that we test in our wind tunnel. Students have designed and built their own blades for the wind turbine looking at efficiency and the effect of blade pitch on power output. Dr. Gravagne and I have developed a solar thermal system simulator, and our students have tested and calculated the efficiency rating for this system. Clearly more is needed, and we hope to develop this as part of the recent Quality Enhancement Plan for our university accreditation. Our hope is to use Baylor University as an energy laboratory and develop projects which will help us understand our energy usage patterns and what we can do to reduce our energy consumption/dependence.

Energy education is an important responsibility for the future that isn't just limited to scientists and engineers. All vocations must be energy literate so that informed decisions about national and global policies can be made. We think Baylor should take a more active role in this process of energy education, and our ELG is a first step. Ideally, I would love to see an energy literacy course taken by all Baylor students similar to the other core requirements.

BAYLOR: Of the current technologies being developed for alternative auto fuels --such as ethanol, biodiesel, hybrids, hydrogen, etc.-- which ones do you think hold the most promise for the future? Which has the best chance for implementation or acceptance on a large scale?

Lehr: No single fuel will ever replace petroleum-based fuels. It will take a combination of alternative fuels, in addition to a change in lifestyle, such as using more mass transportation.

I don't favor one type of fuel over another, because it really depends on individual circumstances. Several biofuels have shown potential for more widespread use, specifically because the infrastructure for harvesting crops and distributing fuel is already in place. However, some uses of biofuel are already starting to compete with the food market, which is leading to inflated costs for the consumer in some areas.

Many countries utilize mass transportation far more than the United States. I recently spent time with students in Europe, and many of them are thoughtful about the environmental impact they make, from conservation issues to using mass transportation. European countries were forced to deal with these issues earlier because of limited space and natural resources.

Gravagne: Both ethanol and biodiesel hold limited promise. Because these are such highly charged and politicized subjects, it is hard to see the true utility and limitation of these fuels.

Currently, ethanol is only slightly better than "break even" as an energy source. In other words, every unit of energy used to grow crops (not including sunshine) and produce ethanol yields just a bit more than one unit of actual ethanol. Ethanol is a profitable business only insofar as it is highly subsidized by the federal government.

On the other hand, one can argue that it is appropriate to encourage and subsidize any fuel that does not derive directly from Middle-Eastern oil. I tend to agree. However, at some point we will need to have a serious national debate about the relative merits of putting our food into our gas tanks.

Biodiesel also has its merits, among them that it can be a net energy-positive fuel and that it can be manufactured from waste products that have already served their purpose in the food chain, such as used cooking oils and waste animal fats. But again, it is important to realize that the total energy available (waste or otherwise) from agricultural sources pales in comparison to the total energy needs of the U.S. transportation fleet. At a fundamental level, all large-scale biofuel and biogas endeavors will face the same reckoning: Growing plants is actually not a very efficient use of solar energy. In the right situation, biofuels can be both "green" and profitable. Certainly, where biofuel resources would otherwise be wasted, better to reclaim some energy than none.

The technology question is easier; horsepower for horsepower, hybrid vehicles offer an increase in fuel economy that, when spread over tens of millions of units, can really add up. However, I have been disappointed to watch as automakers often take the energy gain from a hybrid vehicle and convert it to horsepower instead of fuel savings. Engine power of new cars and trucks has sharply increased over the past 10 years, to the point where a hybrid model now merely offers the same economy as the standard model of a decade past. I suppose manufacturers are simply making what people will buy. Owning a hybrid car is still more an environmentally conscious choice (the horsepower issue notwithstanding) than an economically beneficial one.

BAYLOR: What are your thoughts on alternative consumer energy sources like wind and solar power? Are there significant new developments in these areas that are impacting traditional forms of energy? Which do you think should be pursued and why?

Van Treuren: Renewables, including wind and solar power but not hydropower, only accounted for 2 percent of U.S. energy production in 2000. This must increase, but [renewables] will not be able to provide everything needed by our country. In the 1980s the U.S. had over half of the energy produced by wind turbines worldwide. In 2003, Europe had three-quarters of the energy produced by wind turbines. Clearly the U.S. is lagging behind our neighbors across the ocean. Countries such as Germany have committed resources to renewable technologies and currently are the number one producer of wind power in the world. They had a clear and committed path to energy independence that is paying off. Solar power is also promising but not likely to provide a majority of energy required by the U.S. Solar thermal power has promise for domestic hot water heating, but the cost is prohibitive to some.

Nuclear power is also not the answer. The problems with nuclear waste have not been solved. There is some doubt that there will be sufficient nuclear fuel for the future to satisfy the needs of the country. Also, nuclear safety technology, while improved, is still suffering from the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents.

The U.S. has approximately 250 years of coal reserves, and this may be the area that we should invest our time and resources to develop. The coal in the U.S. is not the best quality, but it still could be developed for power generation with the development of new "clean coal" technologies to protect the environment.

Lehr: Current government policy is helping to promote alternative sources of energy, including various tax breaks. Wind energy is becoming more and more prevalent in this country. The technology for wind and solar power already exists; we are now learning to use it on a broader scale. We haven't fully tapped into tidal power's huge potential. Aside from coastal regions, most American homes could be equipped with solar hot water heaters and photovoltaic panels to take advantage of the sunlight.

BAYLOR: How has the recent emphasis on conservation and the environment by Christian groups impacted the efforts of the larger conservation/environmental movement?

Van Treuren: We have only scratched the surface of how energy production and consumption impact the environment. There are many "inconvenient truths" being circulated which are based on assumptions that may be faulty. More research is needed to verify these theories. Gloom and doom predictions for 100 years in the future are easy to make, but the models are only as good as the information and assumptions being modeled. Predictions from the 1970s haven't come true. We understand a lot more about our environment but there is still more to learn. For instance, Henrik Svensmark, director of the Center for Sun-Climate Research in Copenhagen, thinks the sun may be the real cause of global warming. He is doing legitimate science and is being accused of arriving at his conclusions for political reasons. Some scientists just don't want to be objective about the topic.

Baylor is uniquely poised to be a leader in the education of men and women in all vocations to see the world's challenges with a Christian worldview. Our students can make a difference in the future, especially in the energy sector. As Christians it is our duty to be good stewards of the planet that God has entrusted to us.

Gravagne: For me, recognition by some Christian groups and churches that environmental causes are not just for Earth-worshipping hippies is the most exciting recent development in the wider sustainability movement. Christians united in a cause can drive significant social change through personal and corporate action. What satisfies me most about the growing Christian sustainability movement is that Christians can bring a properly balanced view to the table. For too long, environmental activists have been their own worst enemies, adopting an all-or-nothing attitude that bordered on Earth worship and alienated most reasonable people. Christians know the earth is a created object, and like all created material objects, of little eternal value. My driving force is the realization that, in a small way, I can glorify the Creator through stewardship of His creation.

The balancing act is to properly weigh the needs of people. However, I would stress the preceding word "needs"--many times, where sustainability and economics come into conflict, greed and pride are found. In American Christianity, it is worth asking ourselves whether all of the things we have--for example, our large homes and cars and long commutes--are truly needed, or if we have perhaps misappropriated the Creation for our own selfish wants.

Unfortunately, I find that churches and Christian organizations are quite willing to preach personal sacrifice when it comes to church service or funding building programs, but on the topic of material temperance and sacrifice for less tangible objects like environmental stewardship, most are oddly silent. I hope the burgeoning Christian sustainability movement will find solid footing and that we can continue to have a civil debate.

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