Energy Day Speaker Urges NU Students To Get Involved

Elise Foley

By Elise FoleyThe Daily Northwestern

Students, professors and professionals gathered in Technological Institute on Saturday to discuss what one speaker called humanity’s biggest problem: energy.

Northwestern’s Engineers for a Sustainable World held a day-long series of lectures and panel discussions for the group’s third annual Energy Day. The keynote speaker, Robert Rosner of Argonne National Laboratory, spoke to about 50 people about policies that could help solve the problem of using environmentally damaging fossil fuels for energy.

“It all comes down to ‘How do you affect the political process?'” Rosner said. “It’s a difficult question, and it’s not one we as technical people are trained to answer. What we need here are political science majors.”

Energy is a complex problem with no absolute answers, Rosner said. Many proposed alternatives – such as using hydrogen as a substitute for gasoline – won’t be widely available anytime soon, he said.

“If I want to have a car that’s hydrogen-fueled, and I want to go a reasonable distance, I can’t do that today, ” Rosner said. “If you want to find a solution, you have to be more clever and not just say ‘hydrogen gas.'”

Gasoline is cheap and has an infrastructure in place for its distribution, he said – a big advantage over other potential energy sources.

“All the alternatives are environmentally not benign, or costly, or inefficient, or ineffective – despite the hype – or they don’t really exist,” Rosner said.

Rosner said he suspected oil companies would not pursue more environmentally-friendly energy unless their profits began to suffer.

“There is a time lag before gasoline companies have to react,” Rosner said. “They don’t care because they don’t have to care.”

The best way to reduce the need for fossil fuels is to conserve energy, Rosner said. Populations are growing, and more people are using more energy, so something like a carbon tax is needed to discourage energy use, he said.

“When you pressure the lifestyle, that’s how you get people to start changing the laws,” Rosner said.

Rosner encouraged the engineers in the room to get involved in politics to make changes. He moved from academia to government work two years ago when he took charge of the Argonne National Lab, a U.S. Department of Energy research center.

“Each one of us should ask ourselves, ‘Where are my talents suited?’ ” Rosner said. “If you’re a social person, the political scene could use you.”

Earlier in the day, there were three panel discussions and another keynote speech about energy and environmental issues.

McCormick and Music sophomore Sana Ma, one of the organizers of the event, said the group hoped to bring more attention to environmental problems through Energy Day.

“We just wanted to put on this event to tell people what’s going on,” Ma said. “For some reason, the student body is not really interested in coming to events like this.”

Conference chairman Eric Lai said the event has gained support since he and several other group members started the event three years ago.

“It’s a great list of various speakers about something we don’t really get a chance to see,” the McCormick senior said. “We are so steeped in academia, it’s good to see some other aspects, like how businesses do things.”

Lai said he appreciated Rosner’s realistic view on energy and the environment.

“He really just gave us what was honest,” Lai said. “It’s a complicated problem, so you have to be careful when people claim to have one solution.”

Reach Elise Foley at [email protected]