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America's Energy Production System for 2050

It's the year 2050. Where is the United States getting its energy from, and what are the implications of our choices?

That’s the scenario that student teams depicted this past spring in a poster contest for CE 355, “Engineering Environmental Sustainability.” Each team’s plan divided the U.S. by economic sector and, working with technologies existing today—fossil, nuclear, solar, wind, and so on (no fusion)—posited an energy-use breakdown that took into account the country’s expected population growth and economic maturation.

“The teams also included an ecological analysis,” says Larry Nies, the civil engineering professor who created the course and has taught it since 2002.

“For example, they had to consider the effects of mining for the materials, land transformation, and greenhouse gas emissions.” A sustainability analysis (can the energy system last through time?) and an uncertainty assessment (where is resource analysis currently deficient? where is future technology development needed?) were required as well.

Engineering students in civil, mechanical, nuclear, construction—even inventive design—take the problem-based interdisciplinary course alongside students in agriculture, science, and technology. “It increases our awareness of ourselves and how we relate to the world and what we do to it,” says Todd Trabert, a mechanical engineering student who plans to join the Peace Corps after graduation. “The course helps you think about how to better people’s lives and make the world better.”

Trabert’s classmates anticipate careers ranging from consumer-product design to environmental policymaking to nuclear power production. Whatever the future holds for them, CE 355 has taught these students that, even if you don’t have all the answers when it comes to the environment and our impact on it, asking questions—and more questions—is the best place to start.