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EPISODE: The Engineering Physics Department Newsletter


Fall / Winter 2006-2007
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University of Wisconsin Energy Institute engages stakeholders in creative solutions

Designing ways to help ITER operate safely

Learning why fusion plasmas sometimes act unpredictably

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Paul Meier

Paul Meier (Larger image)

University of Wisconsin Energy Institute engages stakeholders in creative solutions

Decorative initial cap The University of Wisconsin Energy Institute will leverage several renowned UW-Madison energy education and research programs in its unique, multidisciplinary approach to understanding and addressing key global energy issues. “These are people with very prosperous internationally recognized research efforts,” says Paul Meier, energy institute director. “And they’re seeing a need to cooperate and collaborate and think outside their own research interests because they think it’s vital that we in Wisconsin and in America start thinking more broadly about energy issues.”

Formally created earlier this year, the institute pools the expertise of more than 50 UW-Madison faculty and staff in disciplines that range from chemistry, physics and engineering to geology, life sciences, environmental studies, public policy, business and law. It includes representatives from the UW-Madison Engine Research Center, Solar Energy Laboratory, Fusion Technology Institute, Center for Sustainability and the Global Environment, Power Systems Engineering Research Center, and Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium, among others.

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“Our mission is to integrate all energy activities at UW-Madison and to focus them as a resource to serve Wisconsin and beyond,” says Meier.

The breadth of energy research at UW-Madison enables energy institute participants to tackle issues such as rising fuel costs, greater energy demands, and cost-effective alternatives from many perspectives.

In addition, the researchers’ discipline-specific knowledge—in essence, an internal system of checks and balances—sets the institute apart as an unbiased source of energy information, says Professor Michael Corradini, an energy institute founding member. “We’re trying to present the facts in common, unadulterated, understandable language, so that other people—including the public—can come to their own judgment about what could be done and what are the alternatives,” he says.

Central to the energy institute approach is its interaction with and input from key energy stakeholders, including those from state and federal government, industry and the public. To help members connect with those audiences, the institute has joined efforts with the Wisconsin Public Utility Institute, which for more than two decades has provided forums for discussion and debate of public policy issues in the electricity, gas and telecommunications industries.

“There’s a real belief among the folks who have initiated the energy institute that this is a societal issue and solutions here are going to involve government, industry and also the public,” says Meier. “And a big piece of that is education, because we have to raise awareness about the issues.”

A component of that educational effort is an energy simulation program that Meier developed. The simulator enables users to choose combinations of generation sources—for example, conventional coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, solar and biomass, among others—to meet projected energy needs in a particular region. Based on those choices, the program calculates blackout risks and the amounts of carbon dioxide and nitrogen and sulfur oxides the choices will produce. The program also shows users how their choices affect the average residential electric bill. “We’d also like to expand the simulation to include transportation, as well as home and industrial heating,” says Meier. “So we would comprehensively provide simulations on Wisconsin’s energy.”

In 2005, Wisconsin energy expenditures soared to nearly $18 billion, up from $15 billion the year before, says Meier. “For a Wisconsin household, energy will typically be their third largest expense, behind housing and healthcare,” he says. “Being strategic about energy saves Wisconsin billions of dollars in the long run and has an impact on the Wisconsin household.”

The simulator is available on the energy institute website,

A weekly on-campus energy institute seminar series also creates a forum at which academics, representatives from government, the energy industry, and the public can discuss key issues. The series brings national energy experts, such as BP Chief Scientist Steve Koonin, former California Energy Commission Chief of Program Evaluation Mike Messenger, and University of California-Berkeley Nuclear Engineering Professor Per Peterson, to discuss current topics, recent research or emerging energy challenges. Many talks, which are open to public audiences and also videotaped and archived online, have drawn upward of 200 attendees, says Meier.

This dialog-based format is an energy institute cornerstone—a model based on the Wisconsin Idea in which stakeholders draw on objective university information and innovation to form collective conclusions and solutions. “I think this energy institute does intend to solve the world’s energy problems,” says Meier. “But we have a different philosophy about how that happens.”

While the model has clear benefits for Wisconsin, the idea of energy solutions through civic forum has implications for the entire globe, he says. “It is my vision that we’re going to do this for Wisconsin, but it’s a model that can be widely replicated,” he says.


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Date last modified: Friday, 22-Dec-2006 11:49:00 CDT
Date created: 22-Dec-2006