Lighting the way to a genuinely sustainable future


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Arizona State University prides itself as a world leader in innovation. Under the leadership of President Michael Crow since July 2002, the university has undergone a “rapid and groundbreaking transformative evolution” into one of the world’s best public metropolitan research universities.

Under Crow’s leadership, ASU has established 25 new transdisciplinary schools, including the School of Earth and Space Exploration, the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, and the School of Human Evolution and Social Change. ASU has long had a strong focus on energy, including projects on grid operation and advanced concepts on electricity transmission, microgrids, biofuels, and biosciences, with a “dollop of solar energy” also in the mix.

Perhaps the most exciting work at the Tempe based institution is the LightWorks® initiative, which bills itself as providing solutions to the world’s most pressing global fuel, electric, and social challenges through the simple idea of energy from sunlight.

LightWorks director Gary Dirksan ASU alumnus who returned to his alma mater after a successful career with energy giant British Petroleum (BP), says the program’s success relies on the synergy created by bringing researchers together across university boundaries, disciplines, and existing programs. The resulting collaborations facilitate innovative projects using fresh approaches that leapfrog over old ways of thinking. Further synergy comes via connections with industrial groups and other external players.

Today, the LightWorks website boasts that, “We discover and invent energy solutions to the world’s fuel, electric, and social challenges.” The vision encompasses “a resilient and equitable energy future supported by innovations in technology, policy, law, and markets.”

LightWorks is an innovation accelerator that provides connectivity between the university’s assets, researchers, government agencies, nongovernmental organizations, and corporations to solve sustainability challenges. LightWorks pursues breakthroughs not just to power the world, but to empower and enrich people’s lives, to enlighten communities across the globe, to achieve energy security and energy justice, and to inspire future generations.

To those ends, LightWorks seeks to solve pressing challenges by creating an ecosystem of innovative technologies through interdisciplinary and “out of the box” design thinking. The LightWorks Innovation Accelerator explores solutions in a broad range of sections, including the carbon economy, food systems, the Internet of things, green finance, sustainable engineering, and clean water. How can we overcome ideology and keep the lights on?

Often people flow into the initiative as they are applying for a grant or seeking to commercialize a technology or to draw in partners from other institutions. As they interact across disciplines with other scientists, they are often able to upgrade their own research. Thus, LightWorks is a platform that helps individual ASU programs, rather than agglomerate “credit” to itself.

In the now-worldwide LightWorks external network, disagreement among colleagues has become a great tool for exploration and development of ideas. In order to progress, Dirks says, people have to have the freedom to be wrong. Otherwise, they will fear not getting it right and may not even bring up controversial ideas that may have merit.

As of now about 150 faculty members have loosely affiliated with one or more of the four broad areas that LightWorks has been pursuing. These include an initiative involving basic science and engineering to determine appropriate policies to drive rooftop solar, along with work on solar electrons and the electric grid. A second focus, on sustainable fuels and products, addresses how to get from solar to materials, fuels, and support for the food industry.

A third focus, on policy and social equity, has two components. First is energy policy directed towards the transition to lower carbon energy involving the grid and fuels. The second is on social justice and how to incorporate ideas of equity into the complex energy transition we are experiencing. The fourth major area is centered on economic development that connects businesses and the larger communities with efforts toward sustainability.

The entities and individuals who participate have their own high aspirations, and thus assigning credit to the initiative that merely brings people together to improve their own work product through conflict and collaboration would likely be counterproductive. But the participants know the benefit they obtain through the relationships that LightWorks facilitates.

The criteria for a successful energy transition are, first, net zero carbon dioxide, but also that energy remain just, reliable, and affordable. The world, he notes, has accepted that climate change is a risk, but the good news is that renewable energy has become much cheaper to produce and distribute. There are, however, significant gaps that require attention.

While, as Dirks acknowledges, we cannot say with absolute certainty that “we know” the path to the future, there are ways to build a new energy system that works for people and the environment. Big questions remain to be answered with any certainty, including how the military will fuel its fleets and how the petrochemical industry will survive and thrive once petroleum is no longer an acceptable fuel source.

For example, every surface except perhaps the glass in even electric vehicles is a polymer. Too, until energy storage issues are solved, natural gas will continue to be needed, along with hydropower where available, as backup energy sources to keep things running during wind and solar energy shortfalls. Again, LightWorks insists on solutions that are sustainable for both the environment and people.

These examples demonstrate that science and common sense, not ideology, is the chief driver of the LightWorks® initiative. The mandates for affordability and equity require an open mind and a willingness to accept the best possible energy mix that balances economic justice, and preventing any potential climate calamity.

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