Energy Transitions and Infrastructure

Systems Approach to Energy Transitions  

Enormous transitions in energy sources and uses are necessarily coming in the next half century. As in the past when transitions were made from wood to coal to oil, many transitions may be needed as we move beyond fossil fuels. Cornell University, as New York’s land grant university,  has been studying the risks and benefits of alternative sources, such as shale gas, wind, solar, geothermal, biomass, etc., to help decision makers avoid repeating past kinds of mistakes, e.g., corn-grain based ethanol.

An example of one transitional energy source, is unconventional gas from shale. Shale gas is  becoming nationally important as a major energy source. New York State with its extensive Marcellus and other gas shale deposits is faced with a range of contentious issues associated with their proposed development.  Too often we observe highly-polarized positions and advocacy even though information is incomplete or has not been validated.  Recently,  the US DOE identified a key need to “Ensure the understanding of risks associated with oil and gas industry operations keeps pace with development in increasingly difficult frontiers, including deepwater offshore and unconventional gas onshore."

Cornell is involved in research, teaching, and outreach aimed at understanding and mitigating risks associated with unconventional gas, biomass, wind, engineered geothermal, and other alternative energy sources. Cornell has become more proactive in research, engagement and facilitating public discussion about making informed energy choices for New York.

To select the best possible options regarding all the upcoming energy transitions requires a multidisciplinary systems approach as well as a range of comprehensive disciplinary research. Impacts, benefits and tradeoffs along with their uncertainties need to be objectively evaluated quantitatively for a range of economic, environmental, health, community vitality, and societal metrics as well as job implications. Cornell should take a major role in supplying what is needed for effective decision-making by a wide spectrum of stakeholder groups.  Cornell, through Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) has longstanding expertise in supplying relevant information to local governments and stakeholder on a variety of issues.

Cornell is utilizing talent from its 11 colleges to cover the wide range of research, analysis, and public engagement needed in this area.  In addition, (CCE) has been responding to a variety of stakeholders who seek a scientific, economic, and environmental understanding of these issues.  Ongoing  research is dealing with the (1) technology, risks, costs, and impacts of various energy sources and technologies, (2) developing a systems model to analyze tradeoffs in impacts of various energy sources, and (3) evaluating the effects of fiscal, regulatory, and market forces on energy decisions.  These efforts provide both context and information to the public and decision makers on the systems and life cycle aspects of various choices  including the benefits, risks and uncertainties as well as about parts of the system in which technology, regulations, and enforcement can affect, reduce, and mitigate risks and undesirable impacts.


Faculty involved: Rick AllmendingerLindsey Anderson, Eilyan Bitar, Lawrence Cathles, Kieran Donaghy, Al George, Rod Howe, David Kay, Michal Moore, Susan RihaRich Stedman, and Jeff Tester