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Campus prepares for 2008 Forum

John Tierney | Friday, September 12, 2008

While sustainable energy may only be discussed on the floor of the Joyce Center for a few hours at the Notre Dame Forum on September 24, the energy crisis the world finds itself in won’t go away anytime soon, said professor Frank Incropera, the H. Clifford and Evelyn A. Brosey Chair in Engineering and the Forum’s co-chair along with University President Fr. John Jenkins.

“Our present pattern of energy use is not sustainable because it depends heavily on fossil fuels, which are non-renewable. At some point they will be depleted,” he said.

The only way out of the energy crisis is to shift from fossil fuels to renewable sources of energy, he said.

“Fossil fuels provide us with a bridge to the future, but they aren’t part of that future because they are non-renewable,” he said. “Solar, wind and waves – those things do get replenished.”

Incropera said the future is still a while away but the transition to renewable energy must happen, and the sooner the better.

“This is not going to happen overnight. It’s not going to happen in this century,” he said. “[But] at some point, we want to get into a pattern of energy utilization that is sustainable for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.”

Senior Lourdes Long, a panelist at the Notre Dame Forum on Sustainable Energy, is an Anthropology major whose energy experience includes implementing the Game Day recycling program and founding GreeND,

“The energy issue is so broad, so crucial,” she said. “It is my hope that people walk away from the forum really understanding the crisis situation we are in.”

Incropera, who is Long’s fellow panelist during the second half of the forum, describes the energy crisis as the absence of sustainable energy.

Fossil fuels are also an issue in terms of their environmental consequences, Incropera said.

“There is also this big issue of greenhouse gas emissions and the dominant role of the use of fossil fuels play in releasing greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere,” he said. “If you accept the fact that climate change is real, then using fossil fuels in the way we’ve been using them will have consequences to the environment that don’t bode well for sustainability.”

Some of these consequences may cause humanitarian issues, Incropera said.

“We could significantly impact biodiversity, food supplies and cause a greater burden of diseases,” he said.

The energy crisis is a problem that will loom large in the future lives of students, he said.

“Particularly, our students should have a better sense of the road ahead and what kind of a road map they would like to see,” Incropera said. A goal, he said, would be to get to the point when the grandchildren of current Notre Dame students can have “economic development opportunities with a more benign environmental impact.”

The goal of the Forum is to generate discussion on this energy crisis that isn’t going away, Incopera said.

Forum organizers are looking at “2008-2009 as a year of discernment to get people to think more deeply and to think more broadly about the energy problem, energy issues, the relationship of energy to the environment, to the economy, to public policy, and to geopolitics,” he said.

In addition to raising the energy discussion in an academic setting, the Forum is also designed to impact the way that students view energy in their day-to-day lives, Forum planning committee member Michelle Byrne said.

“Our primary hope is to raise awareness to the level that causes personal conversions,” she said. “We want it to be commonplace to save energy.”

Byrne also stressed the need for students to take personal responsibility on the energy issue.

“We want to raise a basic level of awareness of the necessity of making a difference in your own life across your entire campus,” she said.

She said she hopes “to see that this issue permeates all the things that touch your lives every day.”

Personal responsibility for energy consumption starts with taking the small steps, Byrne and Long said.

She encouraged students to ride a bike to campus, turn off the computer at night and to “personally choose to conserve energy.”

“In aggregate, these small things really can make a big difference,” Long said.

Both Byrne and Long encouraged interested students to get involved in energy and environmental initiatives on campus.

“On campus, there are lots of options” for students to get involved, Byrne said. She cited GreeND, Students for Environmental Action and ND-8, which will focus on environmental issues this year in honor of the forum.

“There are also a lot of course options designed to let students explore these issues more thoroughly,” she said.

The energy issue is bound to affect students’ future career plans as well, according to Byrne. “You’d be hard-pressed to find a job where energy doesn’t come up at this point,” she said. “Look at how interdisciplinary it is. It’s important to just be aware of the relationship energy has to your field.”

Incropera and Long both took time to praise the primary Forum panel of Majora Carter, Jeff Immelt, Ernest Moniz and Bill Ritter, with moderator Anne Thompson.

“We’re pleased to get four distinguished panelists who will meld very nicely in terms of bringing different perspectives,” Incropera said.

Carter founded Sustainable South Bronx in 2001 to help “addresses land-use, energy, transportation, water and waste policy, and education to advance the environmental and economic rebirth of the South Bronx,” according to the company’s mission statement.

Immelt, the Chairman and CEO of General Electric since 2001, will bring the perspective of a high-powered corporate leader to the Forum discussion. Under his leadership, GE has launched the project “Ecomagination,” which “is a business initiative to help meet customer demand for more energy-efficient products and to drive reliable growth for GE, growth that delivers for investors long-term,” according to the Ecomagination website.

Immelt received an honorary doctorate degree from Notre Dame in 2007 when he also served as the commencement speaker.

Moniz is a professor of physics and the director of the Laboratory for Energy and the Environment at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He previously served as undersecretary of Energy from 1997 until 2001 under President Bill Clinton. His research is primarily in theoretical nuclear physics.

Ritter, the Governor of Colorado since 2007, began the New Energy Economy program to help diversify the state’s energy sources, create new jobs in the energy industry and address climate change. Ritter also implemented a requirement that 20 percent of Colorado’s energy come from renewable sources by 2020.

The panel will be moderated by Thompson, who is a graduate of Notre Dame and the chief environmental affairs correspondent for NBC News. She is also a member of the alumni advisory committee for the Gallivan Program in Journalism, Ethics and Democracy at Notre Dame.

Long and Incropera will join the panel in the Forum’s second hour, along with Sister Anne Veronica Horner Hoe.

“Sister Anne will give a unique perspective related to faith with energy and environmental justice,” Long said.

She stressed that each panelist will bring their own perspective to the forum, and said, “My angle is energy policy.” The forum organizers “also wanted to demonstrate what a Notre Dame student can do” in the energy world.