Intercom Online......May 4, 2000

This CAUSE is fueled by enthusiasm

By Karen Trimbath
Public Information
Getting the big picture

Sticker shock over high gasoline prices last winter and rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are just two reasons why Americans need to consider replacing nonrenewable energy sources with renewable sources like solar energy, wind and coal, say two Penn State faculty members -- and they are teaching a yearlong seminar to educate students on how to solve this complex problem.

As part of their seminars, on May 7, Derek Elsworth, professor of energy and geo-environmental engineering, and Semih Eser, associate professor of energy and geo-environmental engineering, and their students will depart for Colorado, Nevada and California, to spend two weeks conducting field research on renewable energy sources. Their agenda will include a visit to the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., a facility that studies the science behind converting the sun's energy into electricity.

The seminar is called CAUSE, or Center of Advanced Undergraduate Studies and Experiences, a collaborative learning program for undergraduate students to address issues of broad appeal throughout the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences. A different topic is offered each year and this year's program is focusing on the costs and consequences of energy choices for the new millennium.

CAUSE 2000 consists of a six-credit seminar (EM SC 470W) that began this spring and continues through the fall. Its focus is on technological solutions to reduce the impacts of energy usage on global environmental quality.

Instructors Elsworth, an expert in hydrology and rock mechanics, and Eser, an expert in carbon materials and deposition, point out the growing concern with rising levels of carbon dioxide resulting from the burning of fossil fuels and the resulting change in the Earth's climate. While they recognize that the link between rising carbon dioxide levels and climate changes hasn't yet been unequivocally established, they are calling for more focused research.

"The primary focus of CAUSE 2000 is to explore available data and develop technological solutions," Elsworth said.

In keeping with CAUSE's goal of allowing students to direct the course of study, this year's students have chosen group projects and led discussions, and their hard work draws praise from Eser and Elsworth.

The class is held in the newly dedicated Myrna Hill and Fred Samuel Harris classroom in Deike Building, named after the parents of Donald Hill, an alumnus of the college who created an endowment to benefit CAUSE. Its built-in, wireless Internet capabilities enable students to immediately access relevant data and charts and use them for discussions.

While the students now recognize that energy sources are necessary to maintain the nation's high standard of living, they want to develop solutions that will include mixing renewable energy sources into the national infrastructure.

One of the students, Garrett Fitzgerald, is a fifth-year senior and the former president of the Undergraduate Student Government. He praises the teamwork and emphasis on student-led discussions. This fall he will use the data collected during the field research trip to help create a map of a sustainable energy infrastructure throughout the northwestern United States.

"This topic -- the energy policy of the United States -- is a big deal," said Fitzgerald. "Every single week, we feel like we are making a contribution."

CAUSE 2000 is on the Web at

Getting the big picture

The students enrolled in CAUSE 2000 spent the spring semester understanding the big picture of energy usage in the United States. They divided into four groups, at first to learn more about renewable energy sources and later to explore the national energy infrastructure by looking at the patterns of energy usage in four regions.

Their findings include:

n The Mid-Atlantic region: Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey -- makes up 14 percent of U.S. residential energy consumption, with Pennsylvania ranking sixth in the nation, New York third and New Jersey 10th. Residential energy consumption is 20 percent of the overall total.

n Natural gas is Pennsylvania's most popular residential energy source and is used by 50 percent of all homes.

n Electricity is one of the fastest growing energy sources due to its low cost and because of its easy fit within the national infrastructure. However, the generation of electricity in coal-fired or nuclear power plants leads to environmental problems with air emissions or disposal of highly radioactive wastes.

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