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Justin Notestein on “The Story of More”

How Small Energy Savings Can Save the Planet

Annalise Biesterfeld | March 29, 2022
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The Story of More: How We Got to Climate Change and Where to Go from Here, by geobiologist Hope Jahren, is the focus of the One Book One Northwestern discussion series for the 2021-2022 academic year. The book explores the road that has led humanity to climate change, dating back to the Mesopotamian people. As a part of a discussion series about the book, faculty and undergraduate students gathered recently to discuss the technological, financial, and political aspects of energy. The discussion was led by Justin Notestein, professor of chemical and biological engineering and director of the Center for Catalysis and Surface Science (CCSS) at the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN).

Notestein began by sharing his insights into energy-saving technology, such as catalysis, that can have a positive impact on climate change. Catalytic reactions are used to make materials that are the earliest part of the supply chain. Notestein’s team at CCSS applies catalysis science towards applications in alternative fuels, abatement of harmful emissions, resource recovery concepts, new processing routes, and many other strategies towards making chemicals more sustainable.

A core element to Notestein’s work in sustainability is technology-centered, automated design. This creates more energy savings, which means less use of natural resources to generate energy and more efficiency of the resources that are used. Notestein suggested to his audience that the newer the technology, the more sustainable it is: a newer heating system saves more energy than an old one because the newer technology is better designed.

However, despite the technology-centered design at the forefront of sustainable energy mechanics, Notestein believes that technology alone is not enough to address climate change. This is where scientists, politicians, and economists alike disagree with each other. As humans deplete natural resources like oil, coal, and natural gas that are used to generate energy, they must consider sustainable alternatives. However, these alternatives are ripe with debate: largely concerning energy savings and capital savings. According to Notestein, this debate further hinders the global transition to sustainable economies. “It is difficult to completely divest from fossil fuels because of the global nature of fuels and the way companies operate. For example, if an institution like a university divests from an oil company, there are other institutions that may invest because of short-term financial benefits. If one country decides to limit new fossil developments, there will likely be increased supply from elsewhere in the globe. Finally, if a company divests itself of, for example, an oil field, that does not mean the wells will be capped and emissions prevented from entering the atmosphere – it just means the resources will be sold to someone else. Reducing fossil fuel demand and global agreements are needed.”

The discussion addressed these differing opinions on energy sources and how best to transition our society to renewable energy. There are many unanswered questions, but the work that Notestein does brings us closer to the answer.

For any students wanting to get involved with energy or catalysis research, consider taking ISEN 210: Introduction to Sustainability - Challenges and Solutions. This course provides an introduction to the importance of life-cycle systems perspectives in understanding major challenges and solutions to achieving more sustainable societies. Visit the ISEN education page or the Northwestern course catalog for more information on energy and sustainability courses.