Skip to main content

Student competitions: representing a sustainable future

Daniel Kammen, Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy | June 6, 2013

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 Geographics 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

Detail from infographic

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, H2 (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.



Detail from infographic

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!

Comments to “Student competitions: representing a sustainable future

  1. from Bloomburg news: “Ice Melting Faster in Greenland and Antarctica in UN Leak”
    By Alex Morales – Sep 6, 2013 3:49 AM PT

    “Ice in Antarctica and Greenland is disappearing faster and may drive sea levels higher than predicted this century, according to leaked United Nations documents.

    “Greenland’s ice added six times more to sea levels in the decade through 2011 than in the previous 10 years, according to a draft of the UN’s most comprehensive study on climate change. Antarctica had a fivefold increase, and the UN is raising its forecast for how much the two ice sheets will add to Earth’s oceans by 2100.”

  2. A 10% melt of the world’s ice in as short a time period as the next hundred years will result in an approximate 30 ft sea level rise. Good bye South Jersey! Good bye New York City! Good luck Florida! Clearly flooding the atmosphere with CO2 is a most risky business. This subtle risk humanity faces is similar to that of the frog placed in a cold pot of water, which is then placed on the stove and slowly brought to a boil. Clearly human kind is not willing to jump clear of a risk, which any 6th grader can document.

  3. Current reality, sans 6th grade, take a look at the NSIDC daily sea ice report. You can see that this year there has been a large upswing in sea ice extent. On top of that Antarctica is setting an all time record sea ice extent as well as a few spot record temps. The Earth is currently heading into a normal cooling cycle that will last till 2035,approx. If the cooling is deep, then glaciers will start rebuilding. Both Canada and Russia are seeing areas of snow covered ground that look like they will not be melting this summer, but will hold over to next winter. This next winter should show everyone what forcing is strongest on this planet.

    Regarding the competition…that is important to teach good stewardship of the land at an early age. Teaching them truthfully is just as important, though. There is a very strong probability that a whole group of people are about to find out the hard way that most of what they were taught regarding ‘Climate Change’ has been wrong. CC should not be taught as a confirmed prediction, as it is definitely not confirmed. With the expected world rise in population over the next 37 years, there will be more problems that man will have to sort out or face serious consequences. The only way to properly deal with such potentialities will require an honest appraisal. Final thought, would Einstein or Feynman ever state the science is settled or that there is no more debate? Like our idiot Dept of Energy head, Moniz, just stated. Think about that.

  4. 6th Grade Arithmetic Problem

    Antartica: 5.4 M sq miles with an average glacier
    depth 1.25 miles

    Greenland: .83M sq miles with an average glacier depth
    1.5 miles

    Total cubic miles of glacier on earth:
    5.4M X 1.25 + .83M X 1.5 = 8M cu. Miles

    Total area of the oceans:
    140 M sq miles

    Sea level rise if all ice on earth melts:
    5280 ft X (8M cu mi / 140M sq mi) = 302 ft

  5. Prof. Kammen, you are most correct to give student competitions a highest priority because it is their future that demands the highest level of protection we can achieve today with the required sense of urgency because of the rapidly escalating climate changes that are harming people and our environment with increasingly unacceptable consequences already.

    And you are also most correct to emphasize the imperative to “motivate behavior change— by individuals, by households, communities, countries, and leaders” to truly make the right things happen before we run out of time during the most recently destructive challenges of change.

    Of highest concern it the fact that the destructive actions of too many political leaders around the world make it appear that our ability to control our emotions hasn’t evolved nearly enough beyond chimpanzees that preceded us on the tree of life. We The People must be constantly educated and motivated to participate, with much higher levels of compromise, to make American Democracy much more responsive to the will of the people instead of special interests.

    Indeed, an emphasis on “people, policies, and behavior” requires that future social scientists participate most actively in student competitions if their generation is going to achieve a truly sustainable future in time.

    Thank you for championing these competitions.

  6. Thank You Prof. Kammen, as you know better than anyone, the consequences of political delays are getting worse daily while we wait for leadership to lead:

    How about choosing for an environmental spokesperson/leader a political, business and communications leader like Michael Bloomberg?

    A 2012 Bloomberg Businessweek special issue “It’s Global Warming, Stupid” documents some of his dedication, and NYC Mayor Bloomberg knows the truth of this as well as anyone:

Comments are closed.