Moderated by Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post journalist Juliet Eilperin ’92, April’s Forward Fest examined how Princeton approaches environmental policy and practice. Held April 15, the online event featured conversations with faculty members and environmental experts Jess Jenkins, Forrest Meggers and Claire E. White, and Shana S. Weber, director of the University’s Office of Sustainability.
Jenkins, the assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, kicked off the session by discussing Princeton’s recently released Net Zero America Study that outlines the technological pathways for the United States to decarbonize its entire economy by 2050. Jenkins, who was the study’s lead author, explained how it attempts to be “a technical blueprint for how we can get the job done, rather than a policy manual,” looking at what it takes to get to net zero emissions across the entire economy, what that means for various regions of the country, and how that is going to reshape the way energy is used and made.
Jenkins, who was the study’s lead author, explained how it attempts to be “a technical blueprint for how we can get the job done, rather than a policy manual.”
Due to improvements in innovation in clean energy technologies, Jenkins emphasized that this goal is possible without spending more as a share of GDP on energy services than currently. The goal “requires focus on the kinds of things we need to build, the level of capital that we have to mobilize, the policy environment that we need to have in place to get that done, and really the tradeoffs that we’re going to face, and choices we have to make as a country about the types of impacts we’re okay with and the benefits that we want to see.”
The next segment of Forward Fest focused on cement and its impact on the environment given that the cement industry accounts for about 8 percent of all anthropogenically-created CO2 emissions. White, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, and an associated faculty member with the High Meadows Environmental Institute, explained how her lab is currently examining alternative cements, trying to understand the properties of more sustainable cements to predict how they will perform long-term. White noted that previously it was believed that decarbonizing the cement industry would be too difficult. However, she said, “There is a really big push happening at the moment in the cement industry to assess ways in which the CO2emissions can be reduced. These range from making the kilns that are used to make the cement more energy efficient to implementing carbon capture and storage technology on the cement kilns. It’s imperative that we start really doing a lot of research on them and implementing the technology. We know it can be large scale, and it can therefore have a big impact when it comes to reducing CO2emissions.”
In his segment, Forrest Meggers, assistant professor of architecture and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and the co-director of the Program in Architecture and Engineering, talked about research that similarly could have large-scale impacts. Rather than concentrating on upstream causes of carbon emissions, however, his work focuses on human usage patterns and how design can shape behavior differently. He discussed the challenge of heating and cooling built environments and the massive impacts on energy usage. Further, he suggested approaches to today’s norms and noted the importance of concentrating not only on new construction design but also the retrofitting of existing buildings. Additionally, he discussed the potential of geothermal exchange and how his own research on campus is showing that increased reliance on geothermal for building heating and cooling is “one of the biggest opportunities we have to expand both renewable generation and building energy efficiency.”
He ended his segment with new research that paints a sobering picture of the adverse impacts of the coronavirus pandemic response on energy usage for building heating and cooling. He sees the moment as an opportunity, “driving toward rethinking the paradigm that we use for delivering heating and cooling and focusing on how we bring air in in a way that’s safe and efficient.”
Weber, who is also a lecturer in the High Meadows Environmental Institute, spoke about the myriad ways Princeton is putting sustainability into practice on campus and how student and faculty researchers are able to use the campus as a lab for testing theories, practices and interventions in real time. Weber said that the campus is a microcosm “that reflects at the local level, many of the processes that are not working so well or are working well at a larger scale, so how does all of this manifest in a locality like this and, because we’re a teaching and research institution, how do we use that to learn and to be involved in bigger scale dialogue about what’s possible.”
Weber said that the campus is a microcosm “that reflects at the local level, many of the processes that are not working so well or are working well at a larger scale.”
The segment concluded with all participants addressing the need for taking early action. Weber reflected, again, on how using the campus as a lab allows the University to aggressively pursue our campus goals, thus affecting our national ones. “What our researchers are showing as possible, we want to take those first steps and close that gap, so that 5, 10, 15 years from now, we’re much closer to what’s being seen experimentally right now,” she added.
In addition to the live discussion, Forward Fest included multimedia programming highlighting the University’s sustainability action plan and the researchers and staff members who are helping Princeton achieve its goals in areas such as greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, stormwater management and more.
An accompanying downloadable resource guide features suggested books, articles, videos and podcasts for further exploration of the work and themes discussed.
Forward Fest is a monthly online series that continues throughout A Year of Forward Thinking, featuring Princeton faculty and alumni exploring a wide range of forward-thinking topics. Learn more.