Carnegie Mellon University

Scott Institute Directors

September 14, 2022

Interview with the Directors

By Sera Passerini

“It’s hard to believe it’s been 10 years.” 

Those words, uttered by Dr. Granger Morgan, who served as the first Director of the Wilton E. Scott Institute for Energy Innovation, carry a lot of weight and can be interpreted in multiple ways. On one hand, one embedded deep in the Scott Institute may feel like the past decade has flown by. On the other hand, a lot has happened (did he mean that it’s hard to believe it’s been only ten years?). Since its inception, the Scott Institute has been led by three talented directors paving the way to success—Dr. Granger Morgan (2012-2014), Dr. Jared Cohon (2014-2017), and Dr. Jay Whitacre (2017-present). They each have their own perspectives looking at the history, impact and future of the Scott Institute. Here, they each share their unique perspective as the Institute turns ten. 

What drew you to join the Scott Institute? 

Dr. Cohon: The overall concept of it was very exciting and it still is, which is that Carnegie Mellon has tremendous resources in energy—every aspect of it. From the basic science of it to policy and everything in between. But there was no central home for it, it was very distributed. So having a center that both would be a landing point, if you will, for people outside the university looking to find out what Carnegie Mellon did was exciting. 

Dr. Whitacre: I first moved my office over here to Scott Hall in 2016 to be closer to other energy researchers and in so doing got a good sense of what was going on at the Institute.  When the director position opened up in 2017, I was encouraged to submit my name for consideration, and was subsequently selected. I thought it would be incredibly interesting and gratifying to work in a cross-cutting way with people all over campus who work in a broad "energy" space, and I was not wrong.  It is a great experience to explore and support all the different energy related projects going on here at CMU. 

Are there any Scott Institute initiatives under your direction that you would like to highlight? 

Dr. Whitacre: I am particularly proud of the University Energy Institute Collective, which we started here at CMU in 2019 and are continuing to grow such that it becomes a national home for university energy institute leaders. We are also in the process of launching "decarb @CMU" which is going to be a great.  

Energy issues have evolved a lot over the past decade. How would you describe this evolution and how has the Scott Institute adapted to changes and developed a deeper understanding of energy issues? 

Dr. Cohon: I think the biggest change has been the shift in the energy supply makeup with renewables playing a much bigger role than they did 10 years ago. I would have to say the Scott Institute had their fingers in all of that. Certainly, Jay Whitacre’s work on storage, Shawn Litster’s work on fuel cells—this is leading, cutting edge, and if anything, it’s even more important now than it was ten years ago…We’ve moved along with and, in a lot of cases, helped that movement to happen, as the energy/carbon decarbonization trajectory has occurred.  

Dr. Morgan: Energy has of course become increasingly central. Even at the time that the Scott Institute came into existence, it was widely understood in technical communities that energy was at the heart of addressing the climate problem and decarbonizing. The energy system was absolutely critical and that was going to take both technical issues and policy issues. The urgency of decarbonizing the energy system has clearly become more widely understood over the course of the last decade.  

There are university-affiliated energy institutes across the US and around the world. What makes the Scott Institute special? What's its secret sauce? 

Dr. Cohon: We’re affiliated with a leading university with a great reputation and that gives us an advantage. There’s the unique importance of Western Pennsylvania in the broader southern and northern Appalachian region—in energy, it’s been pointed out, especially by the Allegheny Conference, that Pittsburgh may be unique in being the only place where every major form of energy is well represented, from nuclear to coal, all the renewables. 

Dr. Morgan: We’re much more effective at working across departmental and disciplinary boundaries than most places. We have much deeper and longer involvement in the policy aspects of energy issues in a way that understands the technology.

Dr. Whitacre: The Scott Institute is best in class at bringing together researchers from very different disciplines to answer complex questions that require input from a range of competencies and stakeholders.  We routinely create environments (and seed work) where CMU faculty and students from policy departments, basic sciences, engineering, and architecture can interact and forge new collaborations. These often to long term successful project that have tremendous impact. 

There have been a lot of changes over ten years, but is there anything that the Scott Institute has remained consistent with, in terms of mission or how it works towards its goals? Is there something that sticks out as the greatest real-world impact the Scott Institute has made over the past 10 years? 

Dr. Cohon: There are some clear successes that stand out. One is, we continued the seed grant program, which it started before I came, and expanded it somewhat. That’s been very impactful and valuable for the faculty...We developed a visiting professor program which allowed faculty to apply for and receive funding to support a visitor for a year.  

What do you foresee the Scott Institute doing in the next ten years? 

Dr. Cohon: The Scott Institute will be an enabler of a few big initiatives. I see signs that one is in the area of a decarbonization policy, with a focus on this region and how can Western Pennsylvania, in the broader region, decarbonize in a way that is also positive for the economy. 

Dr. Morgan: I think the Scott Institute needs to be going aggressively after some large sources of external support, in particular things that will allow groups of faculty across the campus to be working together. 

To close out the Q&A with the directors, Dr. Morgan put the Scott Institute’s future into perspective:

“You and I are breathing carbon dioxide right now that was put in the atmosphere during the industrial revolution back in Great Britain,” he said. “What most Americans do not understand is we have to decarbonize the energy system. And the longer we wait to do that, the more CO2 we put in the atmosphere and that CO2 is going to stay there for centuries, continuing to warm the planet.”  

The directors agree that the Scott Institute will continue to march forward in its mission —continuing to educate and support decarbonization efforts, technology and research for the benefit of the entire planet.