No good deed goes unpunished. As a reward for working hard as department chair I have been asked to spend a year as interim director of the Wisconsin Energy Institute. The WEI is devoted to new thinking about energy, especially renewables, clean energy and energy efficiency. It’s biggest single activity is an incredibly focused array of work in the Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center, whose goal is “to perform the basic research that generates technology to convert cellulosic biomass to ethanol and other advanced biofuels.” The WEI is newish and the applied end of its work has been largely centered around Wisconsin and U.S. issues, which is a great start and has generated an amazing array of papers, patents and other activity.
Looking ahead, it will be a great challenge to connect this science to broader conversations about social and economic impacts, policy, and of course, parallel conversations about renewables, efficiency and sustainability in the rest of the world. Oil palm production in Southeast Asia and Africa would be a great jumping-off point. Acreage has boomed in Indonesia and elsewhere. Land conversion for oil palm plantations is a recognized contributor to carbon release at a global scale—a big downside for a “clean” energy industry. The potential area is getting maxed out and sustainability has become controversial—another ding. It’s going to be fun to see whether and how the Wisconsin and global conversations will connect. Stay tuned.