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Energy + Environment = Opportunity
by Paul Komor and Carl Koval, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Initiative
James White and Alan Townsend, INSTAAR
Konrad Steffen, CIRES
Sam Fitch, Environmental Studies Program

Society now faces a challenge of astounding proportions. The fossil fuel era is coming to a close, driven not just by supply limitations but also by the growing threat of climate change. The search for energy alternatives is accelerating, and Colorado – with its wealth of both fossil fuels (such as natural gas, coal and oil shale) and alternatives (such as wind and solar) – is at the center of the debate.

A growing chorus of voices – in academia, in private industry and in government – are responding to the energy and climate challenges by calling for a fundamental rethinking of how humans interact with our natural environment. This rethinking takes several forms, but is often called ‘sustainability’ that can be defined as meeting today’s needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

How is the University of Colorado at Boulder responding to the energy/environment/sustainability challenge? With a wealth of activities across campus, including: World-class research on climate-related issues in many academic departments, centers and institutes; new classes to meet growing student interest in energy and climate; and a commitment to make the campus carbon-neutral.

Is that enough? Are we doing our part? We don’t think so. The traditional structure of the university – with individual departments focused on their own disciplines – makes it an uphill battle to do the kind of interdisciplinary research and education needed to help meet our energy and environmental challenges. These challenges are not just science, or technology, or economics, or business, or public policy challenges: they involve all these fields and more. And so developing solutions, as well as offering up-to-date educational programs, must bring in our best minds from across campus.

Educational institutions across the United States have recognized the need for structural change to meet this challenge. For example, Stanford University just opened its new Environment and Energy building that “will gather under one roof ecologists and economists, biologists and legal scholars, earth scientists and engineers and policy analysts. It will support specific projects and create a breeding ground for new collaborations….” Arizona State University’s new School of Sustainability offers undergraduate and graduate degrees in Sustainability. And our colleagues to the north at Colorado State University just announced their new School of Global Environmental Sustainability.

With the full support of Chancellor G.P. “Bud” Peterson, CU-Boulder has taken a number of very positive steps in this direction as well. CU-Boulder’s Energy Initiative has made progress in furthering energy-related research, education and business outreach. The Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) and The Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) are both internationally recognized centers for climate research. The Law School’s Center for Energy and Environmental Security has established itself as a recognized regional and national voice in research related to energy policy. Environmental Studies (ENVS) offers interdisciplinary BA, MS and PhD degrees through which faculty and students explore a wide variety of complex issues related to human interaction with the environment. The Leeds School of Business Deming Center for Entrepreneurship has organized several programs that connect their faculty and students with companies in the rapidly growing clean-tech sector.

However, we believe that it is time for our university to consider a bigger step forward. We need an overall administrative structure, as well as new teaching and research facilities, that places all our energy, environment and sustainability-related research and education efforts into a single transparent, logical and accessible home. This could be a new College of Energy and Environment, a New Vice-Chancellor of Sustainability, or a new institute that promotes the kind of interdisciplinary work that is needed. As Flagship 2030, the university’s strategic plan, states: the university needs to transcend traditional academic boundaries: “We will build upon our excellent record in interdisciplinary research and creative work to become a global leader in ventures that span traditional academic fields."

We don’t know what the ideal institutional structure should be, or where new facilities should be located. We are convinced, however, that CU-Boulder needs to move ahead in this area or we will lose our hard-earned reputation as a leader in climate/energy/sustainability research and education.

One might ask whether the creation of a new institutional structure simply represents “getting on the bandwagon” and whether CU-Boulder’s efforts would be competitive nationally. CU-Boulder has been and continues to be a national leader in this effort as noted above. Unlike most universities, we already have numerous programs with demonstrated teaching and research excellence in energy, environmental and atmospheric sciences and engineering, public policy and energy law, social and behavioral sciences, business and entrepreneurship, journalism and communication. What we lack is a visible organizational structure that recognizes who we are in a way that will attract new faculty and students, as well as public and private investment.

This is not a proposal we make lightly: creating a new college or institute is an ambitious undertaking – administratively, financially and politically. Yet so was the plan back in 1876 to set up a university on the barren and wind-swept plains of Colorado. It was that plan that established CU-Boulder, and we believe that an equally ambitious vision is needed to meet the great challenges and to explore the numerous opportunities we now face in energy, environment and sustainability.

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