Duke University has always been grounded in creative energy solutions.
In 1905, tobacco magnate James B. Duke expanded his business empire by investing in electricity generation. The new venture — a series of hydroelectric dams — drove an unprecedented textile and manufacturing boom in the Carolinas. The power company’s success helped fuel the creation of the Duke Endowment in 1924 and the accompanying transformation of Trinity College into Duke University.
It’s apt that now, the university has become a force in energy research, education and engagement. More than 100 energy faculty are housed across six of Duke’s schools, where they’re conducting ambitious research projects and training future energy leaders to tackle diverse challenges. The Duke University Energy Initiative connects the university’s energy community across these disciplinary boundaries, catalyzing innovative science and technology, creative public policy and effective market and finance strategies. The goal is to create and deploy a vast talent pool working to ensure a future with affordable, accessible, reliable and clean energy for all.
Humanity has made great strides on this front in many ways and most of us in developed economies take for granted the presence of reliable, relatively inexpensive electric power. Not so for large swaths of the rest of the world. About 1.2 billion people lack access to electricity altogether. Another billion have unreliable access. Many of these communities rely on primitive cooking methods that require time-consuming fuel-gathering and lead to negative health consequences. This is an area where Duke is now making a difference.
Governments and nongovernmental organizations have struggled for decades to assess the scope of energy access challenges and identify solutions. But access is among our most critical challenges, as Energy Initiative director Brian Murray M.S.’87, Ph.D.’92, points out. “Even in the parts of the world where energy is accessible today,” he says, “we must grapple with how to provide energy that can be affordably and sustainably produced over time, with particular attention to its greenhouse gas footprint.”
The complexity of these challenges calls for a holistic approach. “Our society needs experts in business, data science, economics, engineering, environmental policy, law, and the natural sciences to be focusing on energy,” Murray says. “And we really need for these experts to be able to communicate and collaborate with one another across their various fields.”
That’s why Duke University is cultivating collaboration among different kinds of energy researchers and cross-training students as energy innovators.
Peak demand for high-powered academics
Duke’s approach appeals to prospective students who seek impactful careers in business, engineering, environmental management, law, policy and science.
“Energy was the consideration” to attend Duke, said Elihu Dietz M.E.M.’18, a master of environmental management student at the Nicholas School of the Environment. “I came to Duke for Admitted Students Visitation Weekend, talked to professors here, and decided it was a no-brainer.”
Students like Dietz are increasingly flocking to the Nicholas School, the Pratt School of Engineering, The Fuqua School of Business, the law school, the Sanford School of Public Policy and Trinity College of Arts & Sciences for graduate and undergraduate programs that prepare them for careers in energy.
Duke’s energy degree programs typically allow a high degree of flexibility. It’s not unusual for an M.E.M. student like Dietz to complete energy coursework at Fuqua, Law, Pratt and Sanford. Meanwhile, the Energy Initiative curates a dizzying array of learning opportunities beyond the classroom for students at all levels, ranging from Bass Connections research projects to field trips to “Power Lunches” with energy professionals.
Duke’s energy community is growing steadily. In the 2017-18 academic year, more than 1,500 students are enrolled in 62 energy-related courses across six Duke schools. And thanks to internships, the numbers of Duke alumni working in traditional and new energy fields such as renewables, energy efficiency and data analytics are increasing.
This year, as co-president of the Energy Club at Nicholas, Dietz joined dozens of undergraduate and graduate students to organize Duke’s most significant and successful effort to convene energy scholars and industry leaders. Energy Week, first organized in fall 2016, is a dynamic five-day campus event that includes the Duke University Energy Conference (a student-led conference spearheaded by the Fuqua Energy Club), valuable networking and career development opportunities, student competitions and technology demonstrations. Energy Week 2017 attracted attendance of more than 1,200.
“Energy Week is a perfect embodiment of the emerging energy culture at Duke” Murray says. “It brings together students and faculty from all across Energy Week includes fun perks such as the opportunity to take a test ride in an all-electric Tesla X SUV.
Photo by Greg Jenkinsthe university, CEOs and other senior leaders in energy, and our growing network of alumni and partner organizations who are exploring ways to advance an affordable, accessible, reliable and clean energy future.”
Events included an alumni breakfast, the chance to ride in a Tesla X electric SUV, an emerging markets case competition with participants from top universities across the globe, a live podcast of the Energy Transition Show and Spark, an event at which energy companies make rapid-fire pitches to students. Most every energy-related company and nonprofit in the region — and, increasingly, folks from energy hot spots from Texas to California — attended the conference or some event during Energy Week. Sponsors in 2017 included industry leaders such as Chevron, ExxonMobil, Microsoft, NextEra Energy Resources and NRG.
Transformers: Powerful philanthropy fuels energy at Duke
The momentum shift for energy at Duke happened in 2012, when Texas energy financier and current Duke trustee Ralph Eads ’81 and his wife, Lisa, gave $4.25 million to kick-start the brand-new Energy Initiative. Their gift catalyzed success across the campus, launching an Energy Finance concentration at The Fuqua School of Business that has involved numerous university and private partners. The gift also founded an Energy Fellows program that teams resident and visiting experts with student and faculty fellows on energy-related research, providing research seed funding for their collaborations. Eads-funded conferences, workshops and events, like Energy Week, connect Duke students and faculty with energy professionals. The Bass Connections program matched the Eads’ commitment with $1.375 million of additional funds for Energy Initiative efforts in education, research and engagement.
“Duke’s core strength in energy, as it is in many endeavors, is the interdisciplinary approach we take to research and education,” says Murray. “The Eads gift has been instrumental in developing these capabilities on campus.”
Philanthropy from other donors has continued this momentum. Recently, electric utility Duke Energy’s former CEO Jim Rogers and his wife, M.A., gave $1.5 million to found the Energy Access Project, a partnership between the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, the Energy Initiative, Sanford School of Public Policy, the Nicholas School of the Environment and Bass Connections at Duke. The Bass Connections Challenge Fund provided a $750,000 matching gift to further bolster the new project. Faculty, staff and students across disciplines seek to develop actionable solutions to the challenge of the billions of people worldwide living with little to no access to electricity or lacking access to modern cooking technologies.
Duke faculty, staff and students will research how to increase modern energy access worldwide and directly engage governments, local communities, utilities, companies, financiers and nongovernmental organizations to put ideas into action. “Whether and how the billions of people on the planet lacking modern energy gain access to it in the coming years has massive implications for global security, public health, and the environment,” said Jonathan Phillips, director of the Energy Access Project. “Duke’s full engagement on this issue is a shining example for how its service to society and interdisciplinary collaboration missions are coming together to develop solutions to one of the hardest, most important challenges of our time.”
Plugged into big data
With the advent of “big data,” researchers can address complex energy challenges by accessing many previously unavailable sources of detailed energy information. The Energy Initiative, in partnership with the Information Initiative at Duke and the Social Science Research Institute, is helping Duke researchers leverage that data via the interdisciplinary Energy Data Analytics Lab (EDAL).
Kyle Bradbury M.S.’08, Ph.D.’13 is managing director of the EDAL. “One of the Lab’s first efforts was a multiyear Bass Connections project addressing energy efficiency,” Bradbury recalls. “Team members explored how a single smart meter could be used to provide device-level energy consumption feedback — how much energy the refrigerator, heating and cooling system, or lights are using.”
Another early idea that emerged from the EDAL was using satellite imagery to automatically obtain detailed, city- and neighborhood-level location and power capacity information about distributed solar photovoltaic panel arrays. Students pored over hundreds of square kilometers of aerial imagery, annotating the locations of over 19,000 solar arrays by hand to create a training dataset from which computer vision tools could learn what a solar array looks like and be subsequently used to make predictions on where solar arrays were in imagery from anywhere in the world. As the project progressed, the team’s work became a Bass Connections project and then a Data + summer project sponsored by the Information Initiative at Duke (the university’s big data group).
Collaborators from the Pratt School of Engineering — faculty members Jordan Malof and Leslie Collins in Electrical and Computer Engineering and their team — have built on the industrious work of the undergraduate students. Their team developed a machine learning process so an algorithm could accurately identify solar arrays in satellite images. Remote sensing of energy data is now a core project of the Energy Data Analytics Lab. Faculty and students on several successive Bass Connections and Data+ teams have refined the detection algorithm and applied it to other energy problems, like estimating energy consumption based on the size and location of buildings. In coordination with the Energy Access project, teams are now gathering valuable information about electricity access (using night-time satellite imagery) and existing networks of power transmission and distribution.
Bradbury is ebullient about the progress of the technology, but he’s equally proud of how the EDAL helps Duke students learn the research process, project management skills, and critical research translation skills for communicating the importance of their work.
“The way we do it is unique,” he said. “We provide the framework and the overarching objectives, and then work with the students to hone in on the things they find most interesting. The students grow in different ways through that type of engagement.”
“Our vision is to create and automate a map of global energy infrastructure,” Bradbury said. Ideally, he hopes that such a map would update in real time and be available for governments, nonprofits and industry worldwide to use in increasing power system efficiency, improving planning and policymaking, and prioritizing where to focus scarce resources for energy access in developing countries. Electricity access is especially important because it’s estimated that more than a billion people still will lack electricity in 2030.
And more help is on the way. Thanks to a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the EDAL will soon welcome its first cohort of Energy Data Analytics Ph.D. Student Fellows. A total of eight one-year fellowships will be awarded in the next two school years, with a Duke-hosted conference scheduled for spring 2020 to showcase the fellows’ work and Duke’s thought leadership in energy data analytics.
Seed grants illuminate bright ideas
Mechanical engineering professor Josiah Knight (standing) with neuroscientists Angel Peterchev (center) and Stefan Goetz show off a student-built prototype that uses their new battery and power conversion concept.
Photo by Braden WelbornLike an alternating current, funding flows out of the Energy Initiative, too. A new program to financially support great ideas in energy research has quickly proven successful.
By the fall of 2017, the Energy Research Seed Fund had generated at least five times the dollar value in additional awards compared to its initial seed grants — advancing projects on topics ranging from tapping microorganisms for bioenergy generation to irrigating crops with oil and gas drilling wastewater. One of the 19 multidisciplinary research projects supported by the early rounds of seed grants is the tale of Duke researchers in neuroscience, psychiatry and electrical engineering talking a few years back about how their work might help create a better battery for electric vehicles.
After some initial research, it appeared that their idea had potential. Joining with another engineering colleague, they applied for a grant from the Energy Research SeedThe Perle Converter's battery contains technology used in noninvasive brain stimulation.
Photo by Braden Welborn Fund to complete proof-of-concept testing. The seed funding furthered their research to the point that they won a $500,000 National Science Foundation grant to explore transportation and solar energy applications in collaboration with colleagues at NC State. And now one Duke researcher is developing a market-ready version of a new vehicle battery concept, known as the Perle Converter.
The seed fund is a perfect example of why the Energy Initiative exists at Duke. “We’re here to create opportunities in energy for the entire university,” Murray said.
Sustaining the initiative into the future
Now more than ever, energy research presents tantalizing possibilities for substantial global economic, environmental and health benefits—attracting considerable attention from academic researchers as well as the private sector.
Duke is stepping up now to supply ideas and talent for addressing global energy challenges. As the stakes continue to rise—and as growing numbers of Duke students are interested in energy innovation—continued fundraising is a priority for the Energy Initiative. Specifically, the EI looks to raise support for:
- Growth of educational and career-focused opportunities for undergraduates;
- Expansion of the successful Energy Research Seed Fund to spark innovation and help Duke researchers land larger grants;
- Deepening of relationships with alumni and partners across the industry, to enrich the student experience, strengthen hiring pipelines for graduates, and enhance Duke’s impact on the sector;
- Graduate fellowships that help Duke train even more top scientists and innovators;
- Data, computational resources, and research talent to accelerate the work of the Energy Data Analytics Lab;
- Bass Connections and Data + projects that engage faculty and students at all levels and from all disciplines in high-impact energy research; and
- General programmatic support for the EI.
For more information about how you can help or become involved, visit the Energy Initiative website.