When it comes to energy, there are schools that probably come to mind.
People may think about tech standouts like MIT, or a school in an oil-rich state like Texas. You might think of Stanford or Berkeley.
But would you think of Penn State?
Eric Barron wants his university to become the country’s foremost energy school — a distinction he says it already is, in practice.
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In an interview with the Centre Daily Times, Barron laid out his idea, building off a set of rankings based on scholarly output that placed Penn State in a leadership role in five different categories.
According to Barron’s presentation to his trustees Friday, Penn State is fifth in energy policy, economics and law; third in fossil fuels and combustion; fifth in renewable and nuclear energy; fifth in distribution, efficiency, grid, storage and smart building; and third in energy and the environment, including climate change.
“This should tell you the incredible potential of this university, with investment, to become the energy university,” Barron said. “We want to move farther up the list, and have people realize this is the university you want to go to if you want to focus on energy issues.”
There are others that rank higher. MIT is first in both policy and renewable energy. Berkeley tops the list in environment. But none of those other schools ranks top five in all five categories. That breadth of expertise is something that Barron sees as an opportunity for Penn State to step forward.
Tom Richard agrees, and as director of the university’s Institutes of Energy and the Environment, few people see more about how much energy is being studied at Penn State.
“We have a very long and fairly distinguished career in terms of energy activity,” he said.
The energy challenges are complex and require interdisciplinary thinking and learning and action. Penn State is better positioned than any of our peers in having a community of scholars, faculty and staff able to work together across interdisciplinary bounds. I think that’s an extraordinary strength that works for us in energy as well as other domains.
Tom Richard, director of Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment
Some of that comes from history. Sitting in the center of Pennsylvania’s coal country, Penn State has been studying the fossil fuel-rich land almost since its inception. The university was born in 1855. The College of Earth and Mineral Sciences traces its roots to 1859.
And that might be why Barron sees energy everywhere he looks. Although he previously was Florida State’s president, there was a time when he was Penn State’s EMS dean and founder of the Earth System Science Center.
“We’ve documented that we’ve done more research than any university in the world on coal,” Richard said.
Pennsylvania is also well situated as a nexus of energy issues. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Keystone State ranks second in natural gas production and nuclear-generated electricity, as well as being the fourth largest coal producing state and the only one to produce anthracite coal.
Barron sees the new focus as a way to bring the university’s colleges all together, saying that while other colleges might have an expertise in one area, they don’t necessarily have all the moving parts for the totality of research and scholarship that Penn State does.
Penn State offers 30 different undergraduate and graduate degrees specifically relating to energy, in addition to more than 20 workforce development and continuing education programs.
In addition to a highly ranked engineering and other science programs, Penn State also has an agriculture school, allowing for exploration of biofuels in a way that others may not be able to achieve. The university also has a law school to work on changing legal implications and policies, a business school to make new technologies more functional, and one of Barron’s own pet projects — Invent Penn State — to encourage entrepreneurship.
And there aren’t a lot of universities with their own nuclear reactor.
All of that translates to a lot of research, and a lot of funding.
Penn State has received more than $200 million in grants from the Department of Energy alone since 2010.
It also has conscience.
On the other side of the coin, Penn State is one of the leading voices in climate change. Nobel Prize-winner Michael Mann, a meteorology professor who has written extensively about the shift in temperature, joined student protesters Thursday to ask the university to divest its endowment of fossil fuels.
70 Percentage of Penn State incoming freshmen who believe sustainability and the environment are the most important issues faced
“I’m very excited about the student engagement,” Richard said.
But the students aren’t the only ones looking out for the future.
Penn State’s Office of Physical Plant is actively pursuing sustainability in its buildings and practices across the campus. The EPA has recognized it as a leader in green power purchasing.
A recent $800,000 grant from DOE goes toward the university finding new, better ways of disposing of nuclear waste.
Barron wants all of that to come together as “one of America’s powerhouse energy research universities,” allowing Penn State to help “transform the energy sector to meet the challenges of the 21st century.”
Some of this is already beginning. In September 2014, General Electric announced up to $10 million coming to Penn State for the creation of The Center for Collaborative Research on Intelligent Natural Gas Supply Systems, where EMS and engineering are coming together with the Smeal College of Business and the College of Information Sciences and Technology to “advance efficiency and environmental sustainability both through technological innovations and improved supply chain management.”
320+ Number of energy researchers at Penn State
To do that, he says, one of the challenges will be to get past the idea that MIT or Stanford are where all the big ideas are happening.
Another is working with limited resources.
Barron told trustees he would be identifying investments in faculty and infrastructure to move the vision forward. The process would all start with committing resources, creating a fundraising plan and partnering with donors.
Not coincidentally, Penn State’s next capital campaign is set to begin in 2016.
Richard said he looks forward to seeing the university take on the challenge.
“I think that we need to address not just the scientific and the technical challenges, but the human processes,” he said.
Taken all together, Barron said, “We can accelerate the trajectory of discovery.”