*FRSEMR 51Z. The Path to a Low-Carbon Future


  • Professor: Douglas Finkbeiner
  • Term: Fall
  • Days: W
  • Time: 12:00-2:45
  • School: Faculty of Arts and Sciences
  • Course ID: 216121
  • Subject Area: Freshman Seminars

Big changes are coming to the way we generate our electricity, with renewables like wind and solar displacing fossil fuels for both environmental and economic reasons. A future of carbon-free electricity is possible, but by no means inevitable. What will it take to get there? The transition away from carbon presents technical challenges related to generation, transmission, and storage. There are also human challenges ranging from dislocation in the workforce to political resistance. A profound reshaping of a trillion-dollar industry is daunting. In this seminar students will review how we currently generate electricity, learn about the underlying technologies, and assess the strengths and weaknesses of each. We will study grid stability and the effects of wind and solar intermittency, and evaluate the possibility of mass storage. We will look at policy, both in terms of incentive structures that encourage renewables, but also policy that protects all the stakeholders, including workers in the energy industry. The science around global climate change is not the focus of this seminar, but we will spend one session studying the views of a climate optimist (physicist Will Happer) and their shortcomings, illuminating some of the political fault lines of this complex issue. We will also consider how energy generation intersects the water crisis, which increasingly threatens prosperity and stability in some parts of the world.

Recommended Prep: Prerequisites: High-school physics and trigonometry. Non-scientists are welcome!