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Panel: Shale Energy among top university research challenges

American public and land-grant universities have an important role to play in the development of shale energy.

That's one conclusion from energy experts in industry and academia who met for the 2012 Public and Land-Grant University (APLU) Conference on Energy Challenges this week at Ohio State University.

Calling shale energy "the new gold rush," conference leader Ron Sega summed up the assembly's brainstorming sessions by saying that public and land-grant universities should serve as "honest brokers" for shale energy – by analyzing the environmental and economic impacts of drilling and its associated infrastructure, such as roads and pipelines, and sharing those findings with the public.

And since APLU campuses stretch across all 50 states, member universities can lead the development and refinement of standards and policies for shale energy, while recognizing how those standards and policies may need to vary among different regions of the country, he added.

Shale energy was just one of several energy topics discussed at the conference. Sega, who is Vice President and Enterprise Executive for Energy and Environment at Ohio State University and also Vice President for Energy and the Environment and Woodward Professor of Systems Engineering at Colorado State University, guided attendees through six brainstorming sessions.

In addition to shale, the conference attendees considered issues in renewable energy, biomass and biofuels, smart grid technologies, transportation, and building efficiency.

One major role that universities can play in America's energy future is to fill the growing need for scientists and engineers. With two-thirds of energy industry experts expected to retire in the next few years, universities must draw students into new and engaging curricula that incorporate all aspects of energy: science, engineering, environment, sociology, and law.

"Building energy literacy is the key," explained Virginia Hinshaw, Chancellor of the University of Hawai'i at Manoa and member of the conference's leadership panel. "We need to help the public understand why energy research is important, and help students see the incredible opportunities afforded to them by careers in energy."

In part, the assembly concluded that universities are ideally suited for hosting long-term research test-beds for new energy technologies – the kinds of projects which industry typically can't pursue on its own. Thus, collaborations among universities and with industry are essential.

To Sega, the conference – which brought together university presidents and chancellors, APLU leaders, and representatives from industry and government – represented an important first step toward setting the country's energy research agenda for the future.

Jim Clements, President of West Virginia University said in his role on the leadership panel that attendees had formed "a strong, united voice on energy issues," and that the APLU is poised to become "a respected voice at the national level" to help set energy policy.

The APLU is a research and advocacy organization of public research universities, land-grant institutions, and state university systems. In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln created the American land-grant universities to provide a then-new kind of higher education – one that taught the practical aspects of science, engineering, and agriculture developed during the industrial revolution in addition to the liberal arts.

That's why an APLU conference was the ideal forum for confronting the country's energy challenges, Sega said.

"With our long history and long-term view of research and education, public and land-grant universities are the ideal institutions to identify and enact these goals for America's energy future."