Tackling Some of the World's Biggest Problems
Carnegie Mellon is committed to solving global challenges through technological advancement, but competing interests—whether they're local, national, or international—often complicate widespread adoption of even the most significant breakthroughs. Negotiating the varied interests of stakeholders requires a thorough understanding of the problem itself, the technology designed to function as a redemptive measure, and the public policy limiting its implementation.
University Professor M. Granger Morgan
Perhaps no one at Carnegie Mellon recognizes the integrated nature of real-world challenges better than M. Granger Morgan, Lord Chair Professor in Engineering
, and Head of the Department of Engineering and Public Policy
(EPP). For more than 30 years, Morgan has been a leader in a field that combines technological know-how with effective strategies for implementation. His solution-driven research aims to tackle some of the world's biggest problems such as improving the power grid, mitigating carbon dioxide emissions, and carbon capture and sequestration.
Fighting Climate Change
Climate change tops the list of contemporary global concerns as rising temperatures threaten plant and animal life. A chief contributor to climate change is carbon dioxide (CO2
) concentrations, which have risen exponentially since the Industrial Revolution. Production and use of everything from electric power to buildings and appliances to automobiles requires the consumption of fossil fuels, which give off carbon dioxide.
But unlike other pollutants, "CO2
is long-lived," said Morgan. "It stays in the atmosphere for a hundred years or more."
He estimates that we need an 80% reduction in emissions by mid-century in order to avoid some of extreme effects of climate change. But a reduction of that magnitude, Morgan explained, would require substantial commitment from the government and corporations, and would "take everything we've got." In addition to wind and solar energy, Morgan advocates emission standards for CO2
, carbon capture and sequestration, and the study of geoengineering options.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, electricity is the single largest source of CO2
emissions in the nation, as well as the technology that we rely on the most. In a recent paper, Morgan, and colleagues Inês Azevedo and Fritz Morgan estimated that "CO2
emissions due to lighting correspond to between 17% and 23% of total CO2
emissions from electricity generation...[or] 7% to 9% of total U.S. CO2
concluded that large-scale investment in solid-state lighting—energy-efficient white lighting (such as LEDs)—would dramatically reduce CO2
emissions. Solid-state lighting far surpasses the efficiency of incandescent and florescent bulbs, yet the initial cost of adoption, particularly in the commercial sector, is substantial. Therefore, the team recommended that national illumination standards be set for new residential and commercial construction, whose upfront cost could be offset by rebates or other subsidies.
An obvious way to reduce CO2
emissions is to consume less fossil fuels, but conservation is easier said than done. Although technological advancements such as solid-state lighting are coming to market, bold policies across a wide swath of the economy would be necessary to produce drastic emissions reductions by the mid-century target timeline.
Furthermore, the power system is vulnerable to natural disasters and terrorist attacks, which begs the question: can we decarbonize electricity and do so in such a way that key services will still be available during an emergency? Although there may be little we can do to mitigate the risk of natural disaster, Morgan says that infrastructure reform would lessen any prolonged outages, which could potentially save lives.
Cap and Trade Policy
Photograph courtesy of Vattenfall
In addition to the adoption of technologies like solid-state lighting, Morgan acknowledges that other policies will be necessary. One option being discussed in Congress right now is a cap and trade policy, similar to that implemented in Europe. Cap and trade programs would establish a national limit on the total amount of CO2
emissions. Large businesses would then buy (or be given) emission allowances, which they could also trade with others.
But according to Morgan, the carbon price expected under current cap and trade proposals is so low that it would not trigger widespread behavior change. A document made available by the Carnegie Mellon Electric Industry Center
, co-directed by Morgan, explains that an increase in carbon prices on the scale proposed would only result in a difference of perhaps a penny or two per gallon at the gas pump.
Instead, "We need to tax emissions to the point that it makes a significant difference in people's habits," he said.
CO2 priced at $50/ton (up from the proposed $12-20/ton) could result in an increase of about 50 cents per gallon—enough to make the average American consider purchasing a more fuel efficient vehicle when shopping for a new car. That higher price also might give utilities the incentive to invest in carbon capture and sequestration.
Similar to the concerns of solid-state lighting adoption, cap and trade policies are limited in their effectiveness if they cannot be enforced on a large scale. Because "a market-based approach [to cutting CO2 emissions] alone will not induce the large investments in long-lived technology needed to put the nation on track," Morgan emphasizes that other measures, such as higher performance standards for power plants, appliances, and automobiles, be taken simultaneously to meet the target goal. Follow the link to learn more about target strategies to reduce CO2 emissions.
Carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is a process by which CO2 produced from electric power generation and manufacturing is captured and sequestered permanently underground in deep geological formations. The CCSReg Project, led by Morgan and other EPP faculty in association with researchers at the University of Minnesota, the Vermont Law School, and the law firm Van Ness Feldman, is designing a set of policies and regulations that will allow CCS technology to be used.
Illustration courtesy of www.kjell-
design.com / Vattenfall
Their objective is to develop policies and regulations that are "safe, environmentally sound, affordable, compatible with evolving international carbon control regimes...and socially equitable."
CCS involves the capture and compression of CO2
, its transportation to the injection site, and its injection into porous and permeable geologic formations, typically at least 800 meters beneath the ground. Most research to date has focused on capturing CO2
from industrial facilities—for example, power plants, refineries, and cement plants—but research by faculty associated with EPP has shown that CO2
could also be captured directly from the air.
Although there are legitimate concerns over human and environmental health risks stemming from CO2 sequestration, these risks are relatively small. However, ensuring that these risks are appropriately managed will require a performance-based, adaptive regulatory framework that is different than most we have today. Equally important is to ensure that CO2 sequestration can be performed legally, which will require new legislation to clarify how the space in these deep geological formations can be accessed and used.
Because the carbon dioxide must be kept away from the atmosphere for long periods of time, it's also critical that there is someone who can ensure that the CO2 stays where it's put long after injection ceases.
To answer these and other questions, the CCSReg Project is developing policy briefs for federal and state legislators and regulators that make concrete recommendations on how to move CCS forward.
Beyond the U.S.
While U.S. CCS and cap and trade policies will have a global impact, solving the climate problem will require all nations to take action to reduce emissions. If we cannot act fast enough to avoid substantially changing the climate, another option—one that nations facing dire impacts could decide to pursue unilaterally—is geoengineering, which relies on systems that are deployed on a planetary scale to effectively cool the planet.
Approaches to geoengineering include "fertilizing the ocean with nutrients that would allow plankton to grow faster and thus absorb more carbon" or "putting reflective particles into the upper atmosphere" to reduce the amount of sunlight that reaches the earth.
While geoengineering might sound like science fiction, it remains a feasible option because its relatively inexpensive: "Geoengineering is roughly one-one thousandth of the cost of abating emissions," says Morgan, "Yet it won’t fix all of the problems related to climate change. The problem is in governance; we need to first learn the impacts and potential consequences."
Geoengineering the climate could cause changes in rainfall patterns, for example, which in turn could affect crop production and yields and, by extension, economic stability. In a recent article in the journal Foreign Affairs, Morgan and his colleagues David Victor (Stanford), Jay Apt (Carnegie Mellon), John Steinbruner (U. of Maryland), and Katherine Ricke (Carnegie Mellon) urge more research into geoengineering, in case the U.S., or another country, decides to use it.
From Technology to Policy
Having taught at Carnegie Mellon since 1974, Morgan helped establish the Department of Engineering and Public Policy as a national leader in analyzing problems in technology and policy in which the technical details are critical. As part of the university's renowned College of Engineering, EPP ranks among the nation's top departments for both undergraduate and graduate study.
Morgan is also University Professor, the highest distinction faculty at Carnegie Mellon can achieve; Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering and Public Policy & Management at the Heinz College; and Director of the Climate Decision Making Center. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and previously served as chair of the EPA Science Advisory Board.
Images courtesy of Vattenfall and Kjell Eriksson Graphic Design and Illustration, www.kjell-design.com