BERC symposium energizes Cal students

Record attendance at last week’s fifth annual Energy Symposium at UC Berkeley demonstrated the swelling interest among students on campus and nationwide in bridging the gap between universities’ renewable energy research and the private sector.

MBA student Asher Burns-Burg discusses UC Berkeley students’ interest in commercializing new energy technology and the role energy clubs play at universities.

More than 450 students – including at least 20 from institutions as far afield as Purdue and Duke ‑ joined about 250 people from industry at the two-day conference, which was organized by the UC Berkeley student-run Berkeley Energy & Resources Collaborative (BERC). The largest student group in the nation, BERC has about 3,000 members from across disciplines – business, engineering, economics and the sciences – who are devoted to energy innovation and engaging real-world problems surrounding the world’s future energy supplies.

“BERC represents a model for student organizations across the nation and internationally,” said UC Berkeley Vice Chancellor for Research Graham Fleming in advance of the meeting. “The 2011 symposium represents a fantastic opportunity for showcasing research, fostering innovation and enhancing interaction with industry in the energy arena.”

This year’s theme was the role universities can play in meeting the country’s energy challenges. Session topics included electric vehicles – a Chevy Volt was on display in Sproul Plaza ‑ nuclear power, terawatt solar, and the impact of renewable energy in the developing world.

“Universities are one of the key players, if not the key player, in winning the clean energy race,” said second-year UC Berkeley MBA student and BERC co-president Asher Burns-Burg, echoing the sentiments of U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a former UC Berkeley physics professor. The number of energy clubs like BERC at U.S. colleges today – more than 80, four times the number five years ago – shows that universities are up to the challenge, Burns-Burg said.

The magnitude of that challenge was laid out on Friday by keynote speaker Arun Majumdar, a former UC Berkeley professor of mechanical engineering who now works under Chu as head of  the federal Advanced Research Projects Agency- Energy (ARPA-E)), the Department of Energy’s version of the defense department’s highly successful Advanced Research Projects Agency. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has invested billions of dollars over the years in risky but innovative research, much of which has been spun off into new technology industries.

Arum Majumdar

Arun Majumdar, a former UC Berkeley professor who now direct’s DOE’s ARPA-E program, speaking at the Oct. 21 BERC Energy Symposium.

ARPA-E hopes to repeat this success in the energy field, Majumdar said, by financially supporting innovative research across the spectrum. He emphasized, however, that innovation alone won’t be sufficient and that universities offer more than that. They are “generational crossroads,” he said, where “gray hairs like me” can talk to students just out of high school; places that can take the long-term view that business can’t afford and a holistic approach that incorporates policy as well as technology. Majumdar added that universities also are known for their global perspective that takes into account divergently different groups within society.

“Our future is at risk without the best students,” he said.

In opening remarks, UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau voiced pride that UC Berkeley has some of the best students in the nation working on renewable energy projects across campus and at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. This past summer, 19 talented undergraduates joined the “Cal Energy Corps” as interns working on a wide range of energy and climate projects around the world.

Some of these students presented posters about their summer research during a Thursday evening poster session at the conference. The posters highlighted student research on solar food dehydrators in Nicaragua, solar water heaters in developing nations, energy harvesting from ambient vibrations, and strategies for improving streetscapes in Oakland, among others.

“We have dynamic and engaged students who bring true passion and energy to this area,” Birgeneau said.

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