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Scaling up without heating up

Winter 2016 | By Paul Robbins

Consider these numbers: 9 billion, 25 trillion and 2.

These are, respectively, the projected human population by mid-century, the expected growth in global electricity demand in kilowatt-hours between now and then, and the increase in global warming, in degrees Celsius, that the recent Paris climate accord sets as a safe limit.

Nelson Institute Director Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins. Photo courtesy
Chengdu Institute of Biology.

Taken together, these figures give some idea of the size of our challenge in meeting rising energy demand while keeping the planet livable for humans and nature. Like it or not, this is the future and there’s no turning back.

In part, this presents a problem for science and engineering. We need to develop non-carbon energy sources, new technologies and greater efficiencies at a much faster pace and on a much larger scale to generate that 25 trillion kWh without exceeding 2 degrees Celsius. It’s a daunting undertaking, but doable, and we’ll be able to measure our progress as we go.

But the energy challenge is more than a math problem. It includes moral, social, legal and political dimensions, with billions of world citizens, now and yet to be born, demanding electricity, clean water, education and basic health care. What development strategies, paired with emerging energy technologies, will move more of the world toward a humane and sustainable standard of living? What are the responsibilities of the wealthy? How do we square justice with power?

We also need to better understand the political and economic aspects of energy demand and supply here in the United States. How does our hard-wired infrastructure direct individual and collective choices and energy markets, and what policy options are available (and politically realistic) to redirect transmission lines, power plants and energy markets toward sustainable outcomes? Where do nuclear power and other contentious technologies and resources fit into the energy mix? Whatever the answers, it is clear that utilities, as we know them, will be unrecognizable in a few decades.

And then there’s the environment. The polar bear in the room is, of course, climate change. The UN’s COP21 meeting in Paris last December – the largest single gathering of heads of state in history – produced a remarkable agreement to limit global warming to a level that will keep risk and disruption within manageable boundaries. The agreement says little about how to get there, however. How will that aspiration become reality?

"The energy challenge is
more than a math problem.
It includes moral, social, legal
and political dimensions, with
billions of world citizens, now
and yet to be born, demanding
electricity, clean water, education
and basic health care."

These are tough, interrelated questions – the kind perfectly suited for the Nelson Institute. Our students, faculty and staff – along with others from across UW-Madison – are working on many of them, often in interdisciplinary teams. So are many of our alumni through their positions in business, government, nonprofits and academia. We’re pleased to tell a few of their stories in this issue of In Common to give you some idea of the creativity of the work being done on campus and beyond.

We’re also happy to shine a light on the ongoing success of our Energy Analysis and Policy (EAP) graduate certificate program, which adds training and value to degrees from fields as diverse as law and public policy to engineering and agricultural economics. Students earning an EAP certificate must participate in a capstone course that serves community partners by tackling a real-world issue. That kind of Wisconsin Idea engagement is in our DNA here in the Nelson Institute, and we’re proud of the collaboration between our EAP students and partners in every sector.

We face some big challenges in this rapidly changing energy landscape, but we’re working to find answers and prepare the next generation of leaders and problem solvers. I’m confident that it will all add up to make a difference.

Paul Robbins sig
Paul Robbins
Director, Nelson Institute 



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