Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Student competitions: representing a sustainable future

By Daniel Kammen

infographic detail

Recently I was asked to serve as a judge for the Shell Student Energy Challenge , an infographic competition that was part of the student fuel-efficiency contest, Shell Eco-Marathon. Shell sponsors National Geographic ' s Great Energy Challenge initiative.

This provided a fascinating opportunity to evaluate what many of us feel: that we must begin by not only communicating better the risks of neglecting the planet, but also by  highlighting the antidotes to our current miserable record of planetary care.

If we are not doing this, who will?  Well, the segment of the population we all point as the one most likely both to care and to take action is well on its way,  the competition  amply proved. That group is secondary school and college-age kids and young adults.  (As I often sadly say, this group is also most likely to bring a class-action lawsuit against those of us older than 50. We really have no defense to the contention that we  had and have sufficient data on how damaging our life-style has become, and we also have ample data on the many opportunities to change things for the better, but to date, have not done so.  That, however, is the subject for another note.)

Shell Eco-marathon is a global mileage challenge and forum for current and future leaders who are working to find smarter solutions to the world’s energy challenge. Student teams compete to design, build, and drive the most energy-efficient vehicle possible.

I have had the opportunity to read a great many entries from high schools and colleges in the United States and Canada, who competed in the Americas division of the competition , and from students in the separate Europe Shell Student Energy Challenge In a single poster, students were asked to describe visually and in text and words our current situation and how we can address this crisis.  More specifically, the question posed to these students was:

By the year 2050, the earth’s population is expected to exceed nine billion people and the demand for energy is expected to triple. What does the global energy mix look like in the year 2050?

The best entries are truly inspiring, and short of critiquing each (a very  "over 50" thing to do), I’ll start by just sharing a few. I don't agree with all of their assessments (more on that later), but want to highlight those that really caught my eye:

infographic detail

33. University of Toronto Q1 Infographic

The University of Toronto team did a  great job of making particularly clear the mix of energy supply-side sources today and in the future, and highlighting just how much is riding on a set of sectors that  occupy an exceedingly small supply tomorrow.  My quibble with this infographic, which took second place in the Americas contest,  is that I think these students are far too conservative on solar, geothermal, and nuclear. (Remember that this latter category includes everything from the exceedingly costly (today) nuclear fission plants, to small, modular, nuclear reactors, and fusion.)  Notice that coal is entirely absent from this team’s assessment in 2050.  Critically absent, however – and for some, hard to graphically portray – is what many feel will be the largest resource: efficiency.

Entry SEC_NTNU_Norway

To be sure energy efficiency is not neglected here (above). This infographic by the DNV Fuel Fighter team from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology is one that takes a narrow view of just this resource, but does a great job showing just how diverse energy efficiency options truly are.

38. U of Missouri

The University of Missouri team captured first place in the Americas contest with this wonderful version that captures the diversity of energy options—and the ability for people everywhere to exploit some of their local resources.  While quibbles can abound here (such as the amazing solar, geothermal, and other resources in Africa and Australia, to name two neglected regions), but I’d really like to see their “H” hydroelectric light bulbs be used for another energy carrier, H 2 (hydrogen). I'd also  have a bit more on the benefits and the perils of large-scale hydropower in the figure.

Entry SEC_Delft University_Netherlands

Students from Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands delivered this excellent take on the benefits and the challenges of the place where most experts think we are headed: toward more and more mega-cities and mega-regions. This visually clean, but perhaps a bit "lean" infographic  focusing on the future of urban areas took second place in the Europe competition.


Entry SEC_TU Crete_Greece

This truly beautiful infographic (right) from the Technical University of Crete, Greece,  won first place in the Europe competition. Another infographic  to appeal to geeks like myself (and I think the watchers of shows like “The Big Bang Theory” is below, by Warsaw University of Technology in Poland.

Entry SEC_Warsaw University_Poland

This final info-graphic— and all of these were winners in my voting— highlights another key point: there is a great deal to learn that underpins innovative new thinking on sustainable energy and economic systems.

If there is a missing theme to note in these great posters, though, it is people, policies, and behavior.  I’ll be suggesting and offering to judge similar competitions that take equally insightful looks at what does and what can motivate behavior change— by individuals, by households, communities, countries, and leaders.

I will be hoping and rooting for that competition to really drive home the importance of the balance we need between technical and social innovations!