The future of clean energy technology development lies in funding not only existing technologies, but also research into future innovations and the workforce that will bring those innovations to life.
The Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) signed into law earlier this year takes what Alexis Abramson, dean of the Thayer School of Engineering at Dartmouth College, describes as a holistic approach to many facets that will enable the future of clean energy. Abramson called the IRA “monumental clean energy legislation,” putting its importance on par with the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, both passed decades ago.
Before joining Dartmouth, Abramson worked as chief scientist and manager of the Emerging Technologies Division at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building Technologies program during the Obama administration. She also worked in the private sector in 2018, serving as technical adviser for Breakthrough Energy Ventures, which Bill Gates launched to address climate change issues.
In this Q&A, Abramson touches on the benefits of the IRA, how Dartmouth is preparing the future workforce and what technologies she’s most excited about for enabling a clean energy future.
How is the IRA impactful in advancing clean energy technologies and initiatives?
Alexis Abramson: To solve the climate change problem, to move clean energy forward, we need to think about three pieces of the puzzle. One is, of course, renewables that will save us from burning fossil fuels. Wind and solar fall into that category. The issue with wind and solar is that they’re intermittent, so when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining, we can’t generate electricity.
The second key solution to help with that are balancing-type resources to offset the problem we encounter because renewables are intermittent. The legislation is not only funding wind and solar but also looks at batteries and smart charging and demand response — hardware and software to help balance those resources and provide electricity when not available from renewables.
The third piece of the puzzle that the legislation addresses is more of these firm resources, which we’ve lived with for decades now with the ability to burn natural gas, coal — nuclear, even — at any time of day 24/7. It is looking at new firm resources as well. That’s additional nuclear and geothermal that could be tapped into. It’s robust legislation because it’s looking at that whole story.
How will the IRA impact actual clean energy technologies?
Abramson: There is money in the IRA for innovation. If we think about some of the innovations on the market today, I’ll call out the cold climate heat pump … those have only become viable in the last few years. That came from research done decades ago, but then honed over the years.
We need to be investing in innovation, and in research. It’s great to have universities very well set up to look at what’s on the horizon so that when we get past 2030, we have new technologies and a new holistic approach to using and implementing those technologies. Things like advanced geothermal, more small modular nuclear, more carbon capture and clean hydrogen will be a big piece of post-2030. Even AI and machine learning. All of that research will help us with solutions in the future.
How do you get students interested in technical classes that could lead to clean energy jobs?
Abramson: It is absolutely critical that state-of-the-art technologies and technical learning, science and engineering, math, are brought into the curriculum. It is our job as higher education institutions to make sure that students are exposed to that. We’re constantly looking at the curriculum and considering, ‘Do we need to teach all of these things that were taught 50 years ago?’ and trying to bring more data science, artificial intelligence and machine learning to our students. That is a really important piece of the puzzle, bringing all of that in.
I think also, engineering schools are making technical courses accessible to everybody. You find sometimes students who say ‘oh, I’m bad at math,’ so they never want to take a science, math or engineering course in their college education. That’s a disservice we are doing to those students. I’m not saying we need to force their hand to take those courses, but we have a responsibility as an engineering school to make courses like that accessible to those learners … to make sure everyone has STEM literacy to help move us forward as a society.
Why is it important to prepare the next generation workforce for clean energy initiatives?
Abramson: You need not only engineers and scientists coming up with new battery technologies or refined carbon capture or thinking about efficiency solutions for buildings; we need those people doing that technical piece, but we also need policy people because thinking about this is complex.
It’s not just the political science or government majors that matter; it’s also the psychologists, sociologists and people who study human behavior, including economists. People who are thinking about that big picture side, such as how do we actually get people to buy the electric heat pump and replace their natural gas or oil system? It’s an opportunity for students interested in all different fields to get involved in this clean energy transition and play a part.
How do you start preparing students for working in business and making clean energy decisions?
Abramson: It’s very important that we teach real-world examples. Students are learning about these things that touch on clean energy, but they might not make the connection. Thermodynamics has been taught for hundreds of years; it’s often one of those required classes most engineering majors take. But rarely are real-world examples about thermodynamics being brought into the classroom, and thermodynamics touches on heating and cooling. Heating is one of the biggest obstacles we face in the clean energy transition because of a move from burning fossil fuels to electrified heating, where our grid will need to be two to four times bigger [than it is today].
Is there a technology you’re watching that could significantly impact the future of clean energy?
Abramson: The one that I’m most excited about is the artificial intelligence piece. If we can turn dumb buildings into smart buildings by adding some intelligence to them, you can save 20% to 30% energy right off the bat. This idea of smarter charging of cars and smarter building management, and smart interaction with these clean energy technologies, is a big optimization problem that will require machine learning, data analytics and AI.
Editor’s note: Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Makenzie Holland is a news writer covering big tech and federal regulation. Prior to joining TechTarget, she was a general reporter for the Wilmington StarNews and a crime and education reporter at the Wabash Plain Dealer.
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