Building BECI

With seven billion people on the planet and global temperatures rising, the entwined challenges of growing energy demand and climate change have become a central motivator across many fields of research. In many ways, Berkeley is an appealing place for an ambitious individual to tackle problems on this scale, as there are top-notch faculty, students, and researchers engaged in climate and energy science in virtually every department on campus, and at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab (LBL) up the hill. With such a breadth of activity, however, coordination can pose a problem. When a prospective PhD student interested in renewable energy recently contacted UC Berkeley’s Vice Chancellor for Research, Chemistry Professor Graham Fleming, asking to which department he should apply, the answer he received was not so simple: browse short blurbs on the websites of seven or so departments, choose one that seems to have interesting research and then apply to that department. Many students at both the graduate and undergraduate level have faced similar frustration. For students and researchers interested in engaging in Berkeley’s energy and climate studies, finding opportunities to do so can be a frustratingly opaque process.

Click to enlarge. Credit: Amy Orsborn

Graham Fleming’s confidence in Berkeley’s excellence is unequivocal. “When Berkeley brings all its strengths together it is unique and unbeatable,” he says. “Berkeley’s strength is not only in having smart individuals, but in having a breadth and range of expertise.” Yet, while he is certain Berkeley has a lot to offer in the field of energy research, he is equally sure that its impact could be amplified through greater institutional coordination. In 2011, the UC Berkeley Office of Research launched a project to engage scholars across disciplines working on energy and climate: the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute, or BECI. BECI’s aim is to provide a central hub at Berkeley that integrates energy and climate studies across disciplines.

How to go about unifying the university, however, remains an open question. “Berkeley’s greatest strength, the vastness and diversity of the people in the organization, is also its greatest weakness,” says Fleming. Horst Simon, Deputy Director of LBL, and one of the many esteemed members of BECI’s steering committee, puts a finer point on the challenge that lies ahead. “UC Berkeley, as an academic institution, focuses on the individual brilliance of its faculty, something it does exceedingly well,” according to Simon. “But it’s difficult to bring them together and focus their energies on interdisciplinary research.” With the goal of attacking this challenge head-on, BECI was launched in 2011 with a one-time allocation of internal funding. Soon afterward, BECI’s leadership met with some initial fundraising success, securing over $8 million in private and industry support that will enhance a variety of program initiatives.

A history of energy and climate initiatives at Berkeley

The history of energy initiatives at Berkeley is peppered with ambitious projects. At LBL, for example, high-energy physicists like Art Rosenfeld decided to turn their attention to energy and climate studies during the energy crisis of the 1970s, realizing that their talents could be used to address the most immediate challenges faced by society.  Rosenfeld, an early proponent of energy efficiency, founded the Center for Building Science at LBL in 1975, and became one of the nation’s preeminent leaders in energy efficiency science and policy.  This redefinition of the lab’s purpose led to pioneering innovations in the realms of energy efficiency, air quality, energy analysis, energy storage and combustion over the next 30 years.

Berkeley’s commitment to the energy and climate problem was reaffirmed when Steven Chu, now the US Secretary of Energy, became Director of LBL in 2004. That year, Chu and Fleming, who was serving as Deputy Director of LBL at the time, decided to take a hard look at Berkeley’s strengths and move the national lab and university in a direction that would attack what they considered to be the largest and most pressing problem facing humanity. “In scale, nothing else comes close to the energy problem”, Fleming said. With grants won from the DOE and British Petroleum, Helios, a solar to fuel research center, was born. However, though it elevated the scale of energy research at Berkeley, Fleming and others realized that Helios addressed only one aspect of energy supply, which itself is only one aspect of the larger energy and climate picture. A larger-scale and more comprehensive coordination effort would be needed to have transformational impact.

Click to enlarge. Credit: Amy Orsborn

Meanwhile, other departments, student groups, and researchers were coming together to tackle the energy problem in disparate ways. The major energy and climate initiatives at Berkeley create a veritable alphabet soup of acronyms: Carbon Cycle 2.0 (CC2.0), an LBL initiative launched in 2009 by its current director, Paul Alivisatos, to stimulate cross-disciplinary research focused on enabling a carbon-neutral society; the Joint BioEnergy Institute (JBEI), a US Department of Energy research hub opened in 2008, which seeks to unite Bay Area researchers working on harvesting the energy in plant biomass; the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), another BP funded biofuels research center opened in 2008; the Berkeley Initiative in Global Change Biology (BiGCB), the Energy Resources Group (ERG), the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative (BERC) and the aforementioned Helios. All together, there are around forty energy and climate science programs between UC Berkeley’s campus and LBL.

Just reading this list can be overwhelming, and those passionate about BECI agree. “BECI is an umbrella that brings together many institutes that exist in Berkeley already. While they all have their own agenda, BECI is the one place where, if someone does not know Berkeley, they can learn about what happens in a particular area,” according to Simon. He also believes that promoting better communication between researchers at Berkeley will lead to big breakthroughs: “Some of the most significant inventions in the mid to late 20th century, like the transistor that fundamentally changed our lives and gave us the computer revolution, happened at places like Bell Labs, where people were communicating very quickly. ” This strategy of using rapid communication and collaboration to foster transformative discoveries is at the heart of BECI’s mission.


Much of the impetus for BECI’s launch, fundraising and coalescence has come from the top down, driven by concerned parties in UC Berkeley’s administration and board of trustees. However, Vice Chancellor Fleming has also been keen to tap into the grassroots energy of UC Berkeley’s students to fuel the institute and provide important insight and momentum toward its development. With this in mind, Fleming commissioned the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative (BERC), UC Berkeley’s student energy club, to complete a comprehensive gap analysis to determine where Berkeley could improve, and identify important strategic priorities for BECI’s leadership. Fleming hoped that a student team could be brutally honest and unbiased in a way that was difficult for the entrenched deans and faculty members sitting on the BECI steering committee. He was rewarded with a detailed report that highlighted both successes and failures of the university’s institutional performance in showcasing and promoting interdisciplinary energy and climate science.

Finding information about Berkeley energy research can be difficult, even from a logistical point of view, with so many separate labs and departments participating. The BERC study, which was conducted by three engineering graduate students and two MBA students from the Haas School of Business, found a dearth of inter-departmental collaborations and coursework, difficult access to energy and climate resources on campus, and a lack of a central hub for publicizing, recruiting for, and collaborating on energy and climate studies. According to the surveys and interviews conducted for the report, students mostly hear about research opportunities through word of mouth or secondary sources, rather than from the University, a fact that most recognize as a major barrier to engagement.

According to Alex Luce, BERC’s co-president and a student in Materials Science and Engineering who worked on the report, finding opportunities to study energy and climate at Berkeley is difficult given the fragmented landscape of course offerings and research. In working on the report, Luce was surprised to discover that UC Berkeley offered a Designated Emphasis in energy for PhD students, a title that is attached to a student’s final degree to certify their expertise in a specific subfield. However, many of the classes required for the Designated Emphasis are discontinued or not regularly taught. Even for those classes that are offered, students must look through the course offerings of roughly a dozen departments. “Frustratingly,” says Luce, “there is no central and up-to-date hub for information.”

The BERC report has already had an impact on BECI’s immediate and long-term goals. When the BERC team presented their final results to the BECI steering committee in December of 2011, it was a standing-room-only event, a rare occurrence at mid-day faculty and administrative meetings. Based on information from their surveys and interviews, as well as an extensive accounting of research papers published in peer reviewed journals and patents originating from UC Berkeley and LBL energy and climate research, the BERC report made four recommendations to the steering committee for immediate action: establish an online virtual hub, increase focused and interdisciplinary coursework, improve marketing of energy and climate activities, research and education, and develop and implement a thorough organizational design.

BECI’s steering committee is currently engaging with these recommendations. The virtual hub, for instance, is envisioned as a website where members of the Berkeley community, as well as prospective students, researchers, and the public, can learn about energy and climate related research opportunities and publications, course offerings, and public lectures happening at Berkeley.

Fleming’s desire to engage students in BECI’s growth has also manifested itself in other ways. In addition to commissioning the report from BERC, BECI has tapped the student leadership of BERC for the steering committee, inviting both of its co-presidents to sit on equal footing with campus deans, research institute directors and professors. BERC’s leadership has also helped to interview potential hires for the open BECI Executive Director position. Deputy Director Simon believes that BECI’s continuing relationship with BERC and other energy groups at Berkeley will be mutually beneficial. “All these things that are happening in Berkeley happen all over the place, and BECI makes sure that there is one place where they are all coming together.”

Challenges and opportunities

There are substantial challenges to launching a project as big as BECI. All big organizations depend on the enthusiasm and engagement of the individuals involved. Fortunately, because of the urgency of BECI’s theme, there is no lack of enthusiasm among faculty and administration. However, a formidable challenge is that of overexposure. As Simon says, “there’s so much going on here in the space of energy and climate that one can get tired of yet another meeting.” Achieving faculty engagement in BECI, and encouraging the multidisciplinary research central to its mission, is a challenge that Vice Chancellor Fleming is well aware of. “Telling faculty what to do is like herding cats: impossible,” he often quips with a tinge of sarcasm, “but what you can do is move the food.” In other words, because Berkeley faculty members are perpetually competing for research funding, new resources that allow them to develop new projects are a powerful incentive. Fleming claims BECI can help faculty secure the “cat food” of the academic world: grants and recognition.

Though the UC system is facing cuts from state funding, Fleming considers BECI to be a worthwhile investment: “You can’t cut your way to health. Once you stop creating new things, you lose the momentum for creating opportunities.” Indeed, many on the steering committee believe BECI will bring a net influx of funding for energy and climate studies, which can lead to more resources for students, faculty, and researchers. Simon of LBL agrees. “Our colleagues and competitors at Stanford and MIT have created similar programs, and used the combined prestige of their professors to attract funding from donors, and stimulate interactions with foreign universities and foundations,” he says. “BECI has an important role to play to make Berkeley have a more coherent presence on these issues: it is one place where external institutions can get information on what’s happening in Berkeley, both the university and LBL.”

If successful, BECI will be the hub through which these entities can connect with all of the energy and climate research on campus and at LBL. Particularly valuable to potential partners and investors, as well as academics interested in commercializing their next breakthrough, are the increased research disclosures, patents, and licensing and investment opportunities that BECI hopes to generate.

Planting a seed for innovation

BECI’s coffers have already been opened in an effort to stoke new and innovative energy research. In late 2011 BECI provided its first round of “innovation seed funds” to multidisciplinary UC Berkeley and LBL research teams in the form of $200,000 to $250,000 internal grants. Three projects were funded in the initial round of grants, focusing on economic analysis of energy efficiency investments, real time modeling and data collection of energy use and efficiency in buildings, and solar-to-fuel energy conversion. Catherine Wolfram, Associate Professor at the Haas School of Business and Co-Director of the UC Energy Institute and Assistant Professor Meredith Fowlie of the Agricultural and Resource Economics Department, used one of the innovation grants awarded by BECI to expand their research on the impact of a federal energy efficiency project called the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), which weatherizes homes for households with income at or below 200% of the poverty line.

Wolfram and Fowlie’s research compares real energy use with models developed by engineers. As Wolfram explains, “engineers simulate energy use savings with a weatherization program, and those models say the program will save 20 to 25% of energy use. However, after someone makes your home more airtight, you might use the heat more, so the energy savings you get are much lower than the engineering models would predict.” This diminishment in energy savings is called the rebound effect. Fowlie and Wolfram want to measure the magnitude of the rebound effect in actual homes, and compare its size to other potential discrepancies between real savings and modeled savings, such as poorly installed retrofits or imprecise models. “The seed grant allows us to go back, replicate engineering simulations, use billing data, and work with researchers at LBL to improve engineering simulations to try to fit the empirical estimates,” says Fowlie. Using the new funding provided by BECI, they plan to develop surveys to measure the rebound effect, and reconcile engineering models with empirical data.

Complementing predictive engineering with empirical behavior research like that conducted by Wolfram and Fowlie is essential to fully understanding energy use. Predictions made by the engineering models upon which the WAP is based leave out the important human component of these systems that exists in the real world. After all, real families, not computer code, inhabit the homes being weatherized. Understanding both the physics of heat, and the psychology of setting a thermostat can be powerful tools for informing future energy efficiency policy.

Fowlie and Wolfram think Berkeley will benefit from having more multidisciplinary projects like theirs, and see BECI playing a role in making them happen. “The students have done a lot to integrate the departments and get people talking across disciplines,” Wolfram says, “and I think BECI will do that on the institutional level. Energy and climate research is also about selling the product to the outside world. Some of it occurs at the business level, some at the science level, and it’s important to have an institute to communicate.”

Cal Energy Corps: A new opportunity for undergraduates

Click to enlarge. Credit: Amy Orsborn

The opportunities being generated by BECI’s initial activities are not confined to faculty members alone.  Tiff Dressen, the manager of new initiatives and projects at the office of the Vice Chancellor of Research, has spent a lot of time coordinating BECI’s programs and says the community of great thinkers in Berkeley inspires her. “I see my role as putting these people together, to create something larger than the sum of the parts.” Part of that piecing-together is matching undergraduates excited about energy issues with hands-on projects, and creating opportunities for students to work across disciplines in ways they may not be exposed to in their home departments. One of BECI’s initial projects, the Cal Energy Corps, a paid internship program for undergraduates to gain experience in energy related research, is managed by Dressen and her colleague in the Vice Chancellor’s office, Kaja Sehrt, with the goal of providing Berkeley students opportunities to explore real world energy problems in a global context. The students engage in a range of projects, from laboratory science to policy and business applications.

Physics undergraduate Gloria Lee participated in BECI’s Cal Energy Corps during the summer of 2011, working on organic photovoltaic research at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. She helped optimize polymer-based solar cells, and was able to practice laboratory skills that would continue to be useful upon her return to Berkeley. Fleming was inspired to offer this program after his own visit to Hong Kong. “In Hong Kong, there is nowhere to build but up. The buildings are so dense and tall, they disturb the airflow around them, trapping pollution.” The uniqueness of this problem, and others that are part of the global energy and climate picture, cannot be experienced in Berkeley. According to Fleming, the Cal Energy Corps gives students the opportunity to travel to international locations and gain a deeper appreciation of the complexities of the energy problem on a global scale.

Cultural immersion is a key component of the experience gained in the Energy Corps. While in Hong Kong, Lee noticed the local culture surrounding sustainability. “Hong Kong is really into the “green” movement. A lot of local politicians use that as a prominent buzzword, and I saw flyers for campaign activities such as clothing drives that promote re-use. While it makes sense that Hong Kong, as a small, densely populated island, would care deeply about efficient energy and resource use, it was interesting to see how enthusiastically they approached this issue.”

Dressen is excited that the Cal Energy Corps program will continue for Summer of 2012 and is especially enthusiastic about the addition of Brazil, Ghana, Germany, and the People’s Republic of China to the list of places Berkeley students can study. Long term funding for the program has not yet been secured, but Dressen is optimistic that the program will continue in future years.

A bridge to the future

In addition to supporting multidisciplinary faculty research projects and experience abroad, BECI is also providing institutional support and seed funding in a lower-profile but equally starved arena: cross-disciplinary curriculum development. While it may not lead directly to technological breakthroughs that make headlines, the knowledge transfer delivered in courses taught by researchers in multidimensional fields is exactly the kind of collaborative learning experience that BECI wants to promote.  Fleming hopes that with this ecosystem in place, Berkeley will attract the best and brightest among the next generation of scientists, engineers and researchers to tackle the energy and climate challenge, and instill in them a deeper understanding of these complex problems.

The growing demand for this type of curriculum was clearly identified by BERC’s report. According to survey results, in-depth, practice-based, and interdisciplinary courses in energy and climate studies are lacking at Berkeley. The BERC team also discovered a great deal of demand for an energy seminar series to connect students with the latest developments in energy and climate related issues.  However, the development of new interdisciplinary curricula takes time and energy, both of which are at a premium for the typical UC Berkeley faculty member.  Much like the innovation seed funding on the research side, funding awards for curricular development are an important incentive for faculty engagement.

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The first of BECI’s scholastic efforts were already underway before the BERC report was finalized. In the fall of 2011, six professors including chemists and geophysical scientists team-taught a course on carbon capture and sequestration for the inaugural Berkeley Energy and Climate Lectures. This new course is meant to expose students to the latest research in a specific energy or climate related field. In addition, BECI awarded three grants to teams of professors developing new energy and climate-related curricula. These grants will support new graduate and undergraduate energy courses focused on biomass, energy policy, and the fundamentals of solar energy. Finally, BECI is also helping to launch a new energy studies minor for undergraduates by convening a committee of faculty members to determine the course requirements and curricular gaps.

It remains to be seen what impact BECI will ultimately have on energy research and curriculum at Berkeley, and the organization itself is still a work in progress. However, the institute has had tremendous success in its inaugural year. BECI has grown from an idea with an initial injection of funding into an institute that has not only provided support for new programs, courses and funding opportunities but has reinvigorated dialogue and a sense of collaboration on the energy and climate challenge across Berkeley’s institutional structure. BECI’s growing network and array of resources will likely continue to expand the opportunities for energy and climate scholars at Berkeley and, if it fulfills its mission, foster breakthroughs that will impact the rest of the world.

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