Mar 23, 2007 (From the CalCars-News archive)
We've been an admirer of Berkeley's prolific and renewably resourceful Prof. Dan Kammen for years. Recently the always-quotable Kammen responded aptly to the debate over peak oil by getting back to the main point: "we're going to run out of air long before we run out of oil." The San Francisco Chronicle reports his big-picture views. (To track his academic work, see the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory http://rael.berkeley.edu/.)
Professor urges social priorities in BP institute Dan Kammen backs greater goals than fuel for the affluent Rick DelVecchio, Chronicle Staff Writer rdelvecchio@.... http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/03/22/BAGILOPM001.DTL&hw=plug+in+hybrid&sn=003&sc=299 Thursday, March 22, 2007
The $500 million BP biofuels deal may be one of the biggest things to hit UC Berkeley science since the A-bomb.
But Dan Kammen says science that big needs something else -- a conscience to match.
Kammen, a public policy professor who holds an honorary title of Distinguished Professor of Energy, thinks the deal is a prime opportunity for the Berkeley campus to use technology as a force for social good, but fears the university could let the chance get away.
"The social goals of the project -- enhancing food, fuel, social and environmental security for the full global population -- must be as central as developing improved and more sustainable biofuels for the more affluent nations," Kammen says.
He is one of many faculty members working to influence the university's administration as it negotiates a 10-year agreement to create the BP-funded Energy Biosciences Institute housing 50 company researchers and 100 academic scientists and engineers.
The institute isn't running yet, and no hiring decisions have been announced. But Cal's proposal to BP lists Kammen as leading a group in analyzing the social and economic impacts of new biofuels.
His outspokenness now is partly an effort to make sure that the agreement with BP gives socioeconomic research a central role and includes people with firsthand knowledge of how the developing world would deal with the impact of new biofuels.
In molecular know-how, UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory may be unmatched in the world. But Kammen argues that if all that firepower is to have a broad social benefit, the partnership should be guided by Berkeley's equally impressive legacy in the social sciences.
"Socially determined objectives must thus lead and direct this effort, not become relegated to 'ambulance chasing,' following behind a series of technically compelling yet socially questionable discoveries, papers or patents," Kammen wrote in remarks submitted to a recent faculty forum.
If the project develops low-carbon fuels without fundamentally addressing the social needs of the world's poor, it will have failed "no matter how many Nobel prizes" it generates, he wrote.
He wants the university to spell out the social goals at the outset to calm faculty criticism over how the partnership with BP will be governed and mediate conflicts between social and commercial values that may arise when the project is running.
For example, researchers may differ on which kinds of plants to pursue as sources of biomass to produce new fuels. One plant may be highly productive as an energy source and have great commercial potential for developed countries, while another could double as a food and energy source and better serve developing countries.
"I could see a conflict of interest brewing here," Kammen said the other day. "Maybe that can fly in a private university, but it shouldn't fly here. It's something we absolutely need to take a look at."
Two of the key scientists involved in the BP deal acknowledged the social goals this week during a meeting with faculty and students.
"An important aspect of the research is making sure we do research that's in the best interests of the entire world population," said Jay Keasling, a UC Berkeley professor of chemical engineering and bioengineering, who is projected to lead some of the research at the institute.
The institute will seek research proposals from social scientists, and the results of the research will be published for all to read, said Chris Somerville, a Stanford biological sciences professor and scientist at Lawrence Berkeley lab. Somerville is in line to head the institute.
Kammen welcomed the comments as a start and said the e-mails he got about the meeting this week were almost the antithesis of those he received after the "debacle" of the contentious faculty forum on March 8, when a host of speakers harshly criticized the unprecedented partnership.
"In a small way, I'm declaring victory," Kammen said. "Getting people to agree is no small task given the egos and dollars involved."
As a physicist with a social vocation, Kammen's interests focus on the energy, health and environmental impacts of putting new technologies in place in developing countries. He directs the university's Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, which works on bringing energy innovations like small wind turbines to people in ways that make cultural and economic sense in everyday life.
He is part of the energy research culture at Cal and at the Lawrence Berkeley lab that was making modest but potent innovations in technology and conservation, such as low-power refrigerators and reflective window coatings, long before British Petroleum changed its name to BP and venture capitalists began flocking to clean energy as the next big thing.
When he talks about a next big thing in clean energy, he means a redesigned power grid working in concert with a growing fleet of hybrid cars plugging into the same power sources that distribute energy to buildings. To him this is classic Berkeley stuff, pre-BP.
"I think plug-in hybrids are going to be a bigger deal than biofuels," Kammen said.
The BP energy deal, announced Feb. 1, will recruit chemists, physicists, biologists and crop scientists in a broad campaign to create super-efficient energy farms growing plants that can be converted to sugar-based fuels to replace gasoline. The push will center on recently developed techniques to manipulate matter at the molecular level.
Kammen, who has a lab in Nairobi, Kenya, is interested in what the new institute might mean for farmers in Ghana and elsewhere in West Africa and would like to include in his end of the research such associates as Wangara Maathai, an environmental and political activist and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
"I'm pretty comfortable we're going to come up with good crops for affluent farmers in Iowa," Kammen said. "I'm not sure we have structures to come up with fuels for poor Ghanean or West African farmers. That's my goal.''