Notions at the Intersection of Climatology and Renewable Energy by Jeremy Fordham
It’s quite common to hear renewable energy lauded as “America’s last saving grace” these days—after all, how else will the U.S. relieve its dependence on foreign oil imports? How else will the nation engage in macroscopic sustainable practices that will ultimately preserve the environment and stop us from regurgitating greenhouse gases into the atmosphere? It’s still uncertain when renewable technology will attain economic parity with traditional methods of energy use, but there’s no doubt that these technologies are a lot cleaner. There’s also no doubt that progress in this sector is heavily dependent upon the analytical data provided by climatological studies.
NASA has extensive databases full of information on surface meteorology and solar characteristics available online. In turn, engineers use this data as a set of parameters for installing things like solar panels and wind turbines in a given location. The effectiveness of photovoltaic (PV) technologies, for instance, is measured in part by a region’s insolation characteristics. How much direct sunlight does a place receive in a given year? How does a region’s insolation change over a decade, and what factors affect this oscillation? The answers to these questions come from climate scientists, of course.
While chemical engineers of all specialties work to improve the electronic capabilities of PV cells, their work could easily be rendered null if these improved devices are stationed in places with erratic insolation tendencies. Climatological data is so important to the economic optimization of renewable technology that without it, it would make little sense to fund the improvement of these devices.
While online PhD programs in renewable energy have yet to come to fruition, many institutions around the world have developed long-distance programs that are geared towards addressing advanced issues at the intersection of technology development, climatology and energy economics. Loughborough University offers online distance learning curriculum that leads to a Master of Science in Renewable Energy Systems Technology, and numerous other universities, especially in Europe, are offering a significant amount of courses related to these subjects online. As universities in the U.S. continue to realize the importance of interdisciplinary study in general sustainability, more programs focused understanding climatology’s relationship to technology development are sure to gain popularity.
However, climate science doesn’t just influence the technical development of energy systems. It’s also a very important part of energy policy creation and is essential to an objective analysis of the societal parameters associated with climate change. A course taught by meteorologist David Eichorn as part of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry seeks to blend web-based climate change media with outside opinions in order to
“…enable students to continue their exploration of personal and societal climate change solutions…”
It’s difficult for one person running their electric car to significantly affect a region’s greenhouse gas levels, but all it takes is a single example to spark larger trends. It is courses like David Eichorn’s that inspire informed opinions and dialogue between people who might potentially be making policy decisions in boardrooms in the future. More universities need to recognize the importance of interdisciplinary integration when it comes to climate science. Sure, it involves a lot of differential calculus for those heavy math-lovers, but it is also very much a social discipline that deserves examination through various critical lenses.
It’s very difficult to get a handle on what sustainability actually is, but a common thread that runs through most of the official definitions is that it doesn’t have distinct ties with a specific field. Engineers can be “sustainable,” but so can policy makers and architects and even businesses. The idea of “being nice to the environment” or “reducing carbon emissions” or “creating processes that ensure the longevity of future generations” is almost impossible to put into a single concept. The very idea of sustainability arises from the principles of multi-disciplinary collaboration—that includes government leaders, janitors, manufacturers, writers, scientists, doctors … and the list continues. Will any of these professionals have a truly appreciative understanding of sustainability if they’re not exposed to the principles while studying in school?
It would be wise for universities to take a less-standardized approach to sustainability education. Climate scientists should have the opportunity to learn how their work can influence public policy. Engineers should have to know why the implementation of a multi-megawatt solar infrastructure is only to be improved by a deep knowledge of a region’s climate. In the long run, leveraging this interconnectedness will ultimately lead to better, more optimized solutions in the space of “green energy” while giving graduates with this knowledge an edge over their competition.