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Urgency of climate change demands all hands on deck to transform the energy system

<h6>Courtesy of Sam Forson</h6>
Courtesy of Sam Forson

To the Editors, 

As Director of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, I appreciate the opportunity to address some of the issues raised by Anna Hiltner’s thoughtful opinion piece published June 25 on behalf of the group Divest Princeton. Like Hiltner and her organization, I am deeply committed to the urgent goal of stopping energy-related, anthropogenic climate change. The climate crisis is real, it is existential — and time is running out: we must put ourselves on a pathway to rapid decarbonization immediately.

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The challenge is enormous. A full 80 percent of the world’s energy consumption still comes from carbon-emitting fossil fuels. That’s energy now being used to transport food to cities and people to jobs; energy for warming our homes, lighting our classrooms, paving our sidewalks and running our hospitals — almost everything we humans eat, wear, use, need, and enjoy. 

The challenge is only getting bigger. There are now 7.8 billion people on Earth, and the global population is projected to reach 9.8 billion by mid-century — that’s more than a 25 percent increase from today. 

Simultaneously, economic development on the part of poorer nations means greater energy use per capita, as people in lower-income countries justifiably seek equity with fully industrialized countries. We should not forget that one in eight people on this planet still lack access to basic electricity and all the benefits it brings.   

The fiendishly complex job of transforming the energy system while satisfying growing energy demand is precisely what that the Andlinger Center was created to address. This is our singular mission. We recognize the work will take decades, will span all economic sectors, and will require massive changes to our transportation infrastructure, our building stock, and our industrial processes — yet we do not have a moment to spare. The reality of climate change demands near- and medium-term pathways to net-zero emissions. We need to start slashing carbon emissions right now, as we navigate this complex energy transition.

One of those interim pathways likely involves capturing carbon and returning it deep underground after the energy is harvested. Exploring the most viable methods for “carbon capture and storage” necessarily involves oil and gas companies. 

Clearly, this is an “all hands on deck” moment for our planet. The members of Divest Princeton are passionate advocates who must be part of the conversation. The engineers and the physical and social scientists at the Andlinger Center are passionate, too — which is what drove us to become world-class researchers, at the forefront of finding practical solutions to the range of problems referenced above. 

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Yet our experience has demonstrated that our individual skillsets are almost never enough to create substantial change; we must engage and build partnerships with a range of critical players beyond our campus and outside the academy. That’s why we’re working with leaders from non-profits, from government, and from industry to invent potential solutions and to also ensure our best ideas can be road tested under real-world conditions, quickly and robustly funded, and deployed at scale. 

Our partnership with the ExxonMobil company is a case in point. Since joining the Princeton E-ffiliates Partnership in 2015, ExxonMobil has supported 29 individual projects and contributed to a fund that sustained several interdisciplinary projects from faculty members across campus. This work helped to advance understanding of the properties that govern how sea-ice melts. It supported the discovery of how electrical charge flows through organic polymers to lay the foundations for low-cost, easily-made solar technologies. It has helped shed light on how electric vehicle batteries degrade, paving the way for improvements in battery life and cycle efficiency. And it has helped break ground on a new class of potentially inexpensive solar cells made from a material called halide perovskites. 

In the next phase of collaborative research through E-ffiliates, our ExxonMobil partnership will explore geological storage of CO2. Our analyses, through the Net-Zero America Project, have shown carbon capture and storage, along with energy efficiency, electrification, renewables, hydrogen, and bioenergy, play an important role across most scenarios of rapid decarbonization. In other words, the more options we have, the better chance we have to succeed. 

The findings of this project are informing ExxonMobil and others about a range of pragmatic and immediate pathways to net-zero carbon emissions in the United States by mid-century, along with accompanying infrastructure costs and labor force increases that will be required to achieve such an energy transition. The Andlinger Center’s global project, Rapid Switch, is providing an even larger roadmap for decarbonizing the world, sector by sector, and region by region. 

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Across all projects, Princeton researchers are in the driver's seat: we choose what to work on and when to publish our work. This research is not proprietary; it is all peer reviewed, and Princeton retains the same intellectual property rights as it does for any of our work. At the same time, the most promising technologies and processes that emerge from these studies can only be scaled up rapidly and brought online with the expertise, experience, and infrastructure of companies like ExxonMobil.

Hiltner’s opinion piece quoted a comment I made to Axios last year about the Andlinger Center’s partnership with ExxonMobil. I said, “Look, they’re an energy company. I want them at the table, and we have information that can help them make responsible decisions ... We’re good partners because we challenge each other.” This point is very true and more important as every day goes by. The world simply cannot do what must be done on the schedule we must meet without engaging oil and gas companies like ExxonMobil. 

Lynn Loo

Director, Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment

Theodora D. ’78 and William H. Walton III ’74 Professor in Engineering

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