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University of Wisconsin Energy Institute engages stakeholders in creative solutions

The UW Energy Institute is leveraging several renowned UW-Madison energy education and research programs in its unique, multidisciplinary approach to understanding and addressing key global energy issues.

“These are elite scientists with very active and internationally recognized research efforts,” says Paul Meier, energy institute director. “They’re seeing not only a need to collaborate and connect their own expertise with research from other areas, but also to reach out and to engage with energy decision makers and the public. They see a larger energy conversation as vital to the prosperity of both the state and the nation.”

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, Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium, and Wisconsin Institute of Nuclear Systems, among others.

“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 energy policy, as well as technical 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 Michael Corradini, a professor of engineering physics and an energy institute founding member. “We’re trying to present the facts in common, uncomplicated, 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.

In addition to research, the energy institute approach centers on 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 energy institute participants that energy issues are societal issues and that productive solutions are going to collectively involve government, industry and the public,” says Meier. "Education is vital to raising awareness about the issues."

One unique component of that educational effort is the “My Power” energy simulation tool that Meier developed. The simulation currently enables users to choose combinations of various electricity generation sources — for example, conventional coal, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, solar and biomass, among others — to meet projected electricity needs in a particular region. Based on those choices, the program calculates the cost to produce electricity and the amounts of carbon dioxide and nitrogen and sulfur oxides that system will produce.

The simulation is a tool designed to start conversations about energy alternatives. In 2005, Wisconsin energy expenditures jumped to nearly $18 billion, up from $15 billion the year before, says Meier. “For a typical household, energy will be their third largest expense, behind housing and healthcare,” he says. “Being strategic about energy can save Wisconsin households billions of dollars in the long run.”

While electricity is an important piece of the energy equation, he says, energy institute researchers also are looking to expand the concept of interactive simulation to include energy usage for transportation, as well as for decisions at home. In one project, Engineering Physics Assistant Professor Paul Wilson is improving a web-based personal environmental calculator, which allows users to catalogue their real-life energy-related decisions and gauge the corresponding environmental impact. “It's an easy way to learn that you can really reduce your personal environmental footprint with little changes in your daily lifestyle,” says Meier.

Beta versions of the My Power simulation and the Personal Environmental Calculator are available on the energy institute website, www.energy.wisc.edu.

Led by Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Greg Nellis and Scientist Scott Schuetter, undergraduate and graduate members of several UW-Madison student organizations also are developing educational materials to help K-12 students and their teachers understand the underlying science that governs energy issues.

In addition, a bi-weekly on-campus energy institute seminar series creates a forum at which academics and 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. The talks, which are open to public audiences and also videotaped and archived online, collectively have drawn several hundred 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 do get asked if we're planning to solve the world’s energy problems,” says Meier. “I think our philosophy about how that happens helps make us unique. We realize that technology innovation is one of the necessary pieces, and that the University of Wisconsin-Madison is an international research leader in many of the key areas. But a bigger and more important piece is to create an all-inclusive civic discussion so that, armed with objective data, all stakeholders can proactively seek solutions. If we can achieve real results in Wisconsin, then we’ve created a model for energy solutions through civic forum that has implications for the entire globe."

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11/16/2006