Introduction

Humanity faces an immense challenge: providing abundant energy to everyone without wrecking the planet. If we want a high-energy future while protecting the natural world for our children, we must consider the environmental consequences of energy production and use. But money matters too: energy solutions that ignore economic costs are not realistic—particularly in a world where billions of people currently can’t afford access to basic energy services. How can we proceed?

Energy Within Environmental Constraints won’t give you the answer. Instead, we will teach you how to ask the right questions and estimate the consequences of different choices.

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This course is intended for a diverse audience. Whether you are a student, an activist, a policymaker, a business owner, or a concerned citizen, this course will help you start to think carefully about our current energy system and how we can improve its environmental performance.

This course:

  • Covers engineering, environmental science, and economics to enable critical, quantitative thinking about our energy system
  • Focuses on a working understanding of energy technologies, rich in details of real devices and light on theory; you won’t find any electrodynamics here but will find enough about modern commercial solar panels to estimate if they would be profitable to install in a given location
  • Covers environmental impacts of the energy system, focusing on air pollution, climate change, and land use
  • Emphasizes costs: the cascade of capital and operating costs from energy extraction all the way through end uses
  • Emphasizes quantitative comparisons and tradeoffs: how much more expensive is electricity from solar panels than from coal plants, and how much pollution does it prevent?  Is solar power as cost-effective an environmental investment as nuclear power or energy efficiency?  And how do we include considerations other than cost?

Please note that this is an abridged course, equivalent to roughly half of a full semester-long undergraduate course.  See the syllabus for topics that we include and a list of some we exclude.

Meet The Author

David Keith

David Keith

Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School

David Keith has worked near the interface of climate science, energy technology, and public policy for twenty five years. He took first prize in Canada's national physics prize exam, won MIT's prize for excellence in experimental physics, and was one of TIME magazine's Heroes of the Environment. Best known for work on solar geoengineering, David’s analytical work has ranged from the climatic impacts of large-scale wind power to an early critique of the prospects for hydrogen fuel. David has built a high-accuracy infrared spectrometer for NASA's ER-2 and developed new methods for reservoir engineering to increase the safety of stored CO2. David is Professor of Applied Physics in the John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and Professor of Public Policy in the Harvard Kennedy School. He spends about a third of his time in Calgary, where he helps lead Carbon Engineering a company developing technology to capture of CO2 from ambient air. In his spare time David climbs rock, ice, and plastic, and goes on occasional multi-week wilderness trips.

Daniel Thorpe

Daniel Thorpe

Research Fellow, Energy and Environment

Daniel is a research fellow at Harvard University in energy and environment, with penchants for hiking and reading about the evolution of steam engines. He is broadly interested in efficient, appropriate climate change mitigation, including the land use impacts of renewables and the long term effects of energy efficiency on climate. He’s also endlessly fascinated with the ways people learn, think, and grapple with polarizing topics, and is curious how we can understand each other better and grapple more productively when issues get heated.

Daniel has poured over 3,000 hours of labor and love into making this course! He’s excited to support your learning, jump into the discussion forums, and join you in getting smarter about the pressing issues in Energy Within Environmental Constraints. 

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