Energy Corps

Climate change is a critical 21st century challenge. Major initiatives are underway across the globe but the key metric of success the reduction of greenhouse gas concentration (GHG) in the atmosphere is not improving. A new model for engaging, educating, and securing support from the world community is needed. We propose the formation of a new Sustainable Energy Corps, designed to engage students, communities, professionals, universities, companies, government, and other stakeholders. The focus is on measurement and reduction of GHG concentration in the atmosphere. Translating the “adopt-a-highway” model the world would be divided into local regions connected globally using contemporary data and content platforms. A proposed approach for building a global integrated approach is presented.


Governments, business and industry, universities, and communities all have major initiatives to address climate change underway, yet by the key metric of success – the reduction of greenhouse gas concentration (GHG) in the atmosphere[1] – efforts are failing, as the level has continued to increase (see Figure 1).

Figure 1 – Global Concentration Trends of Major Greenhouse Gases, Ref:

We believe we need a new data-based approach for responding to climate change: create a global initiative designed around the measurement and reduction of the atmospheric GHG.

An improvement methodology requires a defined approach and operating team. There are proven methodologies, such as Six Sigma, that use quantitative output measurements to guide improvement efforts. For climate change, we can form a Sustainable Energy Corps (SEC) to bring together a global network of students, business and industry, civil society, universities, communities, and government. The Sustainable Energy Corps can map global emissions to local regions and connect stakeholders with data, knowledge, and best practices to enable local to global collaboration – starting first with students across the world.

Students are eager to work on solutions to climate change as it is the defining challenge for their generation. The Sustainable Energy Corps can focus their enthusiasm and education in energy, energy system design, and sustainability as well as their understanding of key stakeholder needs to design solutions balancing economics and emission reduction benefits.

In this paper we share a concept for building the Sustainable Energy Corps; a proposed approach based on our experiences in the classroom and through many extended collaborations; and suggestions for next steps.

The framework for the Sustainable Energy Corps builds on learning from many years of business process improvement practices and more recent development of integrated learning and innovation models spanning university to workplace[2]. The approach fits with the new American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE) Institute for Learning and Innovation[3].

There are also many additional excellent efforts underway that could be incorporated, and we look forward to a collaboration that finds, applies, and continues to improve a new, major global network committed to solving the challenge of climate change. We hope to have this start a broader discussion on how we can move to build a global community for addressing climate change.

Climate Change – Some Important Considerations

The measure of success for the mitigation of climate change is the reduction of the GHG concentration in the atmosphere[4]. Emissions from across the globe are a major contribution to the GHG, and – due to this global nature – a systems analysis approach must be applied.

The size and scale of the existing global energy system is massive. The current global annual energy use is equivalent energy contained in 3 cubic miles of oil[5]. The current energy system has been optimized around low cost – as it was developed prior to major concerns about GHG emissions and broader environmental issues.

The energy supply today is more than 80% fossil fuels: coal, oil, and natural gas. The broader energy network is incredibly vast, with mines, wells, plants, power generation, cars, gasoline distribution networks, and — more recently — windmills, solar farms, and batteries for renewable energy storage.

Figure 2 – Climate change system model using established process design and improvement practices.

Transitioning from the existing fossil energy infrastructure requires changes in the underlying asset base, including but not limited to decommissioning power plants, installing new transmission systems, adding carbon capture, building solar farms, transitioning to zero emissions vehicles.

But this is not only a technological challenge. Beyond technology there must be a broad understanding and support from the public, and political barriers across national boundaries need to be addressed.

Figure 2 is a conceptual graphic that illustrates the system design problem. We begin with the total of GHG trend over time. At present, the atmospheric concentration is increasing; but the trend must be reversed and then reduced. That process will create a feedback loop to the global system that provides the necessary guidance to adjust future combinations of capital investment, operating practices, and human behaviors.

Figure 3 – Global to Country Level Emissions Mapping, Ref:

We can apply established “conceptual process design”[6] methods to consider technical, policy, and market investment options and to balance the external factors of global priorities, economic forces, local government policies, and community engagement. Various alternatives can be devised and rated based on system cost, emissions reductions benefits, and stakeholder interests.

The approach ultimately must be done on a global basis. Emissions come from all regions of the world as shown in Figure 3.[7] The global nature adds complexity with global coordination of activity and solutions that consider the total system or life cycle of emissions. For example, if fossil emissions are reduced in the United States but the underlying demand is not shifted, emissions will likely move to another part of the world — resulting in no net benefit globally.

Without global collaboration and tracking, local regional measurements may improve, but the worldwide net benefit will be minimal. For developing regions of the world where there is limited infrastructure today, there is a substantial need to invest to bring all citizens to a common global standard.

Sustainable Energy Corps Design

It is important to start with the total atmospheric GHG concentration and work from the “top” global level down to the “local” level, with a high level of granularity. (This process is shown in Figure 4.) Current emission monitoring systems, like the EPA Flight Program[8], can provide point measurement of GHG emissions; all region emissions must be identified and organized into a common, global data platform which is possible with today’s vast global data networks. Emissions information can be aggregated and shared by source point as well as grouped by market, emission type, or any other view desired. There is significant background work already in place. But the first step is to identify existing activity and aggregate it into global and local system views.

Local regions can be defined and initially “owned” by student teams at colleges and universities. We can translate the “Adopt a Highway Program” [9] (see Figure 5) and build regions for students, communities, companies, government, and other organizations. The regions would be responsible for mapping, quantifying, and tracking all local emissions points. Any source, human-caused or not (e.g., forest fires), that is present in the region and contributing to the change in greenhouse gases concentration should be mapped.

Figure 5 – Local Region Teams can be built translating the “Adopt-a-Highway” program. Create local region of universities, companies, communities, government Graphic:

Figure 4 – Mapping Emissions from Global to Geographies and Regions.

A focus on local emissions is critical to create change. Research has suggested that a community-level development path may trigger transformative change and reduce GHG dramatically.[10]

Figure 6 details this model for change:

  1. Local Region Emissions: Each local region would be responsible for identifying all emissions sources.
  2. Design – Emission Reduction Concepts: Starting with the total region emissions, options could be developed for reducing emissions in the region.

Figure 6 Region Workflow from Local Region Emissions to Final Implementation. An intermediate step is a summary portfolio of concepts for the region of benefits vs. costs to implement.

  1. Assessment – Concepts: For the options developed in step 2, more detailed analysis could be completed to define requirements for the change, including investment.
  2. Cost/Benefit/Risk Analysis: For each of the options outlined, an emissions system level benefit/cost analysis would be completed. The benefit would be lower GHG emissions (tons/year), and the cost would include both investment and operating cost. An assessment of feasibility or risk could also be applied.
  3. Implementation: Options that have good benefit/cost ratios can be advanced to implementation and commercialization.
  4. Research and Innovation Programs: Review of options can be done by integrating the latest new research results as well as providing feedback to identify future research and development needs.
  5. Region Project Portfolio: All options evaluated would be added to the region portfolio of projects plotted by total system cost and total carbon emissions reduction benefit, in an open-source platform.

Regions would develop options based on local needs. Local engagement should include assessment and evaluation of energy technology/system by linking the traditional engineering metrics with economics and GHG emissions.

A regional view also helps ensure a systems-level approach to converge the above-mentioned areas by linking the total GHG goals with regional quantitative targets[11] and local project implementations through technology innovations that have the highest impacts to system-level GHGs. Put simply: innovation should be aligned with solving the problem.

Sharing across regions can also build a broader cross-region list of options plotted on the same grid. This can lead to further generation of new ideas, help to translate successes across regions, and build new global system solutions across regions. These could be shared globally for others to consider, build upon, or translate.

There will be projects spanning multiple regions or that require broader system changes. Such projects can be shared and translated across regions. We could rate and plot all ideas based on total GHG emissions reduction vs. total system cost. This plot will highlight ideas with maximum potential as well as providing guidelines for what would represent a good project.

For projects that have high benefits/cost ratio, block “A”, they should be moved forward to commercialization and implementation. There may be options that have high cost and low emissions benefits, block “D”. Often it is best to suspend those projects as not worthwhile. The other options, blocks “B” and “C”, might be improved and could inspire new research or development programs to improve performance. This is a good way to connect market need back to earlier stage innovation programs.

It is also possible to take existing research results and explore how that may be converted into new options with improved benefit / cost performance. The same type of approach can be used for exploring policy options that might alter the benefits/cost analysis and making an option more attractive.

For example, instead of policies such as minimum renewable standards or a carbon tax, there should be an assessment of the level of carbon reduction that will be delivered. Adding taxes, cap and trade permits, and other constraints with no system-level change simply adds cost (i.e., lower standard of living for the same price level) to the existing system with little or no emissions benefit. Various options within a region can be added to an overall portfolio as show in Figure 7. Ultimately all options could be added to a single global portfolio as an aid for benchmarking and translating options across regions.

Figure 7 – Evaluating Options for a Region

The final area is for new basic research results. Typically, basic research can inspire a previously unknown solution or approach. Often this can be the basis for developing new alternatives and approaches. This is where connection of basic research with market need is extremely important. Often new research results find application well outside the original intended target. Leadership support and engagement are required to bring solution and opportunity together leading to new and unexpected results.

It is also important to have an ongoing level of basic research activity that is for discovery and no immediate intended application. This is the difference between invention and innovation[12].

Path Forward

The challenge of climate needs to be addressed by reduction of GHG concentration in the atmosphere. A global system level approach is required because of the broad global distribution of emission sources. A major effort must be much broader than just engineering and science. We need education, outreach, and engagement across all sectors, disciplines, and geographic locations. Everyone – all citizens – should be able to engage and contribute. It should also be noted that no matter how enthusiastic the response, until a behavior is changed, a process modified, or new technology invested in and installed, nothing will change.

The world of today is globally connected by technology – Google, Amazon, Apple, GitHub as examples. A shared data platform with emissions information, from local to global, could be built and continuously updated. Collaboration, sharing and benchmarking locally can be shared globally. The best ideas can be translated on a global basis for common benefit. Shared learning modules for energy system design, life-cycle assessment, program portfolios, active research programs, and much more can be implemented and used. There is need for a common approach and organization structure.

We have piloted many of the concepts in a series of chemical engineering courses at Penn State. Students have shown great interest and bring fresh ideas, perhaps because they know that they are the ones who will inherit this planet. There is also a need to engage the global population with existing challenges and constraints – to bring new perspectives forward to find new solutions. This makes us very optimistic about future possibilities.

Figure 8 – AIChE Institute for Learning and Innovation Ref:

The American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE), a global chemical engineering professional society, has launched the new Institute for Learning and Innovation (ILI). The global AIChE has as members students, professionals, faculty, universities, companies, government, and many others. The ILI has been created to provide a scalable “horizontal connection” across universities, workplace, government and ultimately including K-12.

Figure 9 – Shared AIChE ILI Platform Supporting Shared Content for the Sustainable Energy Corps

The AIChE is also exploring creation of a “Sustainable Energy Corps” (SEC) collaboration. The shared content and data platform would be implemented as part of the ILI. Initial outreach to a broad group of stakeholders is underway to host a workshop to share existing practices and establish a path forward. Through a collaboration model global content could be developed and shared. Curation and validation of content would then make it available for local use. Integrating the development across universities and businesses could lead to case study problems, example applications and general information about various technologies. There is a broad range of possibilities which would build on the growing trend of online content such as EdX, Coursea, and Udacity. We also can imagine student projects done in collaboration with companies to assess options they have under consideration. Students from the university can bring the latest experience with data analytics, energy system design. The opportunity to infuse new skills into existing organizations at the same time providing students with workplace experiences.

There are many excellent initiatives underway across the world. We hope that others will join and bring their best ideas and approaches to help build out a critical global collaboration to address climate change.


MA has known Professor Xie for more than ten years from many visits to China and work at the National Institute of Clean and Low Carbon Energy (NICE) MA thanks Professor Xie for many stimulating conversations, insights on low carbon technologies and look forward to future collaboration. All wish Professor Xie continued future success!


  2. Industrial & Engineering Chemistry Research 2019 58 (50), 22445-22455, Alger, Velegol and Jordan DOI: 10.1021/acs.iecr.9b03612
  5. A Cubic Mile of Oil: Realities and Options for Averting the Looming Global Energy Crisis 1st Edition, Crane, Kinderman and Malhotra, Oxford University Press; 1st edition (July 15, 2010) ISBN-13: 978-0195325546
  6. Conceptual Design of Chemical Processes, James Douglas, 1988, McGraw-Hill Science/Engineering/Math, ISBN-13: 9780070177628
  10. Reference: Burch, S., Shaw, A., Dale, A., & Robinson, J. (2014). Triggering transformative change: a development path approach to climate change response in communities. Climate Policy14(4), 467-487.
  11. Parris, T. M., & Kates, R. W. (2003). Characterizing a sustainability transition: Goals, targets, trends, and driving forces. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100(14), 8068-8073.
  12. Chemical Engineers Must Focus on Practical Solutions, AIChE Journal, Vol. 59, Issue 8, August 2013, pp. 2708-2720, William Banholzer, Mark Jones
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