YCEI: Generating conversations about real-world energy solutions

This past Saturday, scientists, industry leaders, policy-makers and government officials convened on campus to explore ways in which today’s technology can help provide a secure energy future.

The event, the Yale Climate & Energy Institute’s second annual conference, included discussions on the latest breakthroughs in solar fuels, genetics and bioenergy, and battery technology and energy storage. But the panels weren’t just about science — they were followed by discussions among industry leaders and policy officials about how to move those technological innovations beyond the lab and into practice for use by businesses, governments and communities. 

Those concepts — of merging science and policy, translating technology into practical solutions, and bringing together people working in many different arenas — are at the heart of what the Yale Climate & Energy Institute (YCEI) is all about.

In the two years since the YCEI was launched, the institute has served its mission by providing seed grants for research projects, funding for postdoctoral fellowships, and financial support for workshops organized by students and faculty that bring in speakers from both on and off campus. But perhaps the institute’s greatest strength is its ability to bring together people from across campus and beyond who are all focused on one piece of the larger climate and energy problem.

Two years ago, there were faculty, postdoctoral researchers and students already involved in climate and energy related projects across campus, not just at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies (F&ES), but at such diverse places as Yale’s Schools of Public Health, Law, Divinity, Management, Engineering & Applied Sciences (YSEAS) and Architecture, as well as the Faculty of Arts and Sciences.

But the chances they knew about one another — even if they were in a similar or related field — were slim at best.

“The YCEI has played an important role in creating a community around this kind of research,” says Gary Brudvig, deputy director of the YCEI and the Benjamin Silliman Professor of Chemistry and Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry. “People are getting to know each other because of the institute.”

As the YCEI’s assistant director, Juliana Wang sees first hand how the institute has fostered new collaborations, including one that she herself is involved with. Wang, a recent F&ES graduate, is working along with Andreas Savvides, the Barton L. Weller Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and Michelle Addington, the Hines Professor of Sustainable Architectural Design, on an intelligent-building project that aims to help people cut down on their energy use.

Savvides develops sophisticated sensors that measure occupancy and energy use over time, while Addington focuses on sustainable architectural design, examining such questions as how much light is needed in a given space and challenging current building codes. Wang, who has a background in environmental economics, is studying consumption patterns to understand people’s energy needs and explore ways to smooth peak energy consumption on the power grid. “I think information is key for behavior change,” she says. “If we don’t know how much energy we’re using and how much we need, we won’t be motivated to change.”

The group doesn’t represent a traditional mix of backgrounds, but it’s exactly that kind of cross-disciplinary thinking that’s necessary to tackle climate and energy issues that extend far beyond any one field or discipline, Wang says. The project, which uses the fourth floor of Yale’s Rosencrantz Hall as its test bed, is also an example of another of the YCEI’s tenets: to develop real-world solutions that can be tested locally.

But the YCEI doesn’t just help faculty connect with one another. Before the institute was founded, students from across campus were involved in different groups focused on climate and energy but often had no idea that other campus groups even existed. Members from more than a half dozen different groups at F&ES and the School of Management and Law School, as well as Yale College, have now come together as part of the consolidated YCEI Congress for Students and Scholars.

In the past academic year, the group organized a bi-weekly student and postdoc seminar series that gives the students an opportunity to learn about current topics in climate and energy from one another. Speakers hailed from F&ES, the Department of Geology and Geophysics and YSEAS, among other campus organizations, Last December, the YCEI funded a delegation of students that the congress sent to the U.N. COP16 climate change conference in Cancun, Mexico. As part of their preparation, they held a mock negotiation with other students from Duke and Wesleyan universities — a program they hope to expand to include more schools next year.

“I would say one of the biggest successes we’ve had so far has been the engagement of students interested in climate and energy,” Brudvig said, adding that more and more graduate students are looking for schools that offer programs in these areas.

To help attract some of the best to Yale, the YCEI also offers funding for 5 to 10 postdoctoral fellowships each year. So far, the YCEI has awarded grants to postdocs in chemistry, engineering and environmental studies who are working on issues related to water, biofuels and the use of cook stoves in the developing world, to name a few.

Gary Moore, a postdoctoral fellow in the chemistry department, came to Yale specifically to work with the Yale Solar Group, a collaboration between Brudvig and three other chemists who are working to develop a method for artificial photosynthesis that would convert sunlight into transportation fuel. “Climate and energy are topics that are very compelling for students,” Brudvig says. “The students can really get engaged.”

Another powerful way to engage both students and faculty are YCEI-sponsored workshops, Brudvig says. When he helped organize a solar symposium two years ago, only about 20 people showed up. Last year, that number shot up to 100. “The YCEI played a key role in that,” he says. “People are getting to know about each other and learn about what other people are doing on campus because of the YCEI.”

In the past year, the institute also sponsored a workshop organized by a group of F&ES graduate students that explored the effect of atmospheric soot on climate, and another that focused on the relationship between climate change and the spread of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and Lyme disease.

The institute has also provided seed grants for faculty research projects to help them get off the ground before they apply for larger external grants. Last fall, the Department of Energy (DOE) awarded Yale $2 million to research an innovative method for carbon sequestration that involves storing carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, in underground rocks. One of the project’s team members is David Bercovici, the Frederick William Beinecke Professor of Geology & Geophysics and Mechanical Engineering, who is also a deputy director of the YCEI and, as one of its earliest proponents, helped shape the institute. The research was initially funded by a seed grant from the YCEI, which allowed Bercovici and the rest of the team to attract DOE funding and expand the project. 

That’s a model the YCEI itself hopes to employ in order to sustain itself beyond the initial three-year funding it received from the University when it was created in the spring of 2009. The institute is now pursuing financial support from the National Science Foundation, the DOE, the Environmental Protection Agency and other agencies in order to pursue new initiatives.

Looking ahead, the institute is interested in coordinating an undergraduate and graduate curriculum focusing on climate and energy that would bring together teachers and resources from across campus to create new programs of study. Brudvig is also on an advisory committee currently evaluating the potential for a new institute at the West Campus devoted entirely to energy that would also bring together faculty from many different schools and departments. After all, says Wang, that’s what the YCEI does best.

“We serve as an information portal,” she says. “And we help generate a lot of conversations.”

Learn more about the YCEI’s second annual conference, “Technological Innovation for a Secure Energy Future,” which was organized by Mark Pagani, professor of geology and geophysics, along with a team of graduate students including Joseph Edgar, Brian Marrs, Yoni Cohen and Denina Hospodsky.

— By Suzanne Taylor Muzzin

Media Contact

Suzanne Taylor Muzzin: suzanne.taylormuzzin@yale.edu, 203-432-8555