The name Uni Minn Energy Transition Lab (UMEL) belies the unique, interdisciplinary nature of its work. One of the first of its kind, as well as one of the largest, UMEL brings together scholars, students, practicing engineers, and business people to tackle the complex challenge of powering the world through sustainable energy.
While the organization was founded in response to climate change, much of its work now focuses on energy transitions, both at home and abroad. Through outreach and engagement, it seeks to increase public understanding of and support for solar technologies and energy efficiency, and to catalyze changes in policy and industry.
UMEL Was Born Of Necessity
The genesis of UMEL lies in climate change. In 2007, the University of Minnesota reached a turning point as global temperatures steadily increased. The effects of climate change were becoming more pronounced, and were being felt by its students, faculty, and staff. Amidst this, a group of forward-thinking individuals came together to form an organization that would support and connect the university’s work in sustainability.
The Group Sets Out To Answer A Vicious Circle
A major driver of climate change is the consumption of energy. The greater the demand, the greater the need to produce more energy. The resulting increase in electricity generation inevitably leads to more CO2 emissions and further warming. This so-called ‘positive feedback loop’ is what scientists call a ‘vicious circle’.
People were looking for ways to break out of this vicious circle. Some, like Al Gore and Bill Nye, have called for the rapid adoption of renewable energy technologies and sustainable energy systems. Others, like Jeremy Bentham and the Monty Python crew, have proposed a radical approach: creating alternative energy systems to power our existing energy infrastructure, thus minimizing our reliance on fossil fuels and reducing our carbon footprint.
The University Of Minnesota Asks “What’s Next?”
The University of Minnesota sought to break out of the vicious circle by taking a step back and analyzing the entire energy ecosystem. To this end, it established the UMEL, focusing initially on answering the basic question, “What’s next?”
The Group Considers Tech, Policy, And Economics
The group set out to tackle the question of how to power the world sustainably from a purely technical standpoint. The answer, from a thermodynamic perspective, is solar technologies and energy efficiency. These two factors, when combined, can provide an almost entirely carbon-free energy solution.
Sustainability, however, is a broad concept. Going beyond the purely technical, the team considered the social, economic, and political dimensions of energy transitions as they related to climate change. As a result, the group adopted a systems approach, taking a multidisciplinary approach to design and research. This approach aims to create synergy through interdisciplinary collaboration and the engagement of outside experts.
An Approach That Focuses On The Future
Taking a step back from the technical details, it is important to keep in mind that this is still early days in the field of sustainable energy. There are many technological breakthroughs yet to be made in order to scale up solar and energy efficiency. This is why UMEL is investing heavily in research and development, both at home and abroad. They are doing this not only to develop the needed hardware, but also to pioneer the theoretical and practical aspects of sustainable energy.
In addition to its technical work, the group is also spearheading a program of outreach and engagement, connecting with communities and stakeholders throughout the Twin Cities and beyond.
Looking Forward To A Better Tomorrow
The team is looking forward to a better tomorrow. Not only because they want to reduce their carbon footprint, but also because they want to see a renewable energy future. They believe that, with enough time and effort, they can develop sustainable energy sources that will not only power their buildings but will also be available to the public.
Working through the problems of climate change and securing a sustainable energy future is a mammoth task, and, as the group notes, it is far from over. There are many challenges ahead, not the least of which is designing and implementing new energy systems.
Nevertheless, the team at UMEL remains hopeful. They are confident that, with enough will and dedication, they can solve this complex problem and create a better tomorrow for all.