What you'll learn

  • The basic engineering, environmental science, and economics of our energy system.
  • A working understanding of energy technologies.
  • Environmental impacts of the energy system, focusing on air pollution, climate change, and land use.
  • Techniques for estimating monetary costs and carbon impacts.

Course description

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 rich in details of real devices and light on theory. You won’t find any electrodynamics here, but you will find enough about modern commercial solar panels to estimate if they would be profitable to install in a given location. We emphasizes costs: the cascade of capital and operating costs from energy extraction all the way through end uses. We also emphasize 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?

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.

Photo credits:

Solar Farm CC-BY Michael Mees on flickr
Smokestack CC-BY Patrick on flickr

Course outline

  • Week 1: Introduction

    Meet the instructors and learn what the course is all about. Learn where you’re strongest and weakest, and if you have any commonly-held misconceptions.

  • Week 2: Energy Overview

    Forms of energy and common units of measurement. How energy flows through modern and historical economies, including the composition of energy supply, common energy transformations, and which sources are used for which purposes. Prices for energy around the world.

  • Week 3: Estimating Costs

    The quantitative techniques at the heart of the course: levelized cost and cost of mitigation. We’ll apply these techniques to energy systems and also to everyday life.

  • Week 4: Environmental Impacts

    How severe are air pollution, climate change, and land use impact today, and how severe are they likely to be in the future? How do they affect human health, GDP, and the natural world?

  • Week 5: Fossil Fuels

    An abbreviated section focused on the abundance of fossil fuels. Spoiler alert: we won’t run out any time soon.

  • Week 6: The Electric Grid

    A brief overview of modern electric grids including major technologies they use, how remarkably reliable and efficient they are, how they’re planned and regulated, and how they’re starting to change. 

  • Week 7: Solar Power

    What solar power technologies dominate today and which have a chance to in the near future. How to estimate the cost of solar power in different regions, how it compares to other options, and the remarkable decline in its cost in the past 5 years. How we can cope with the intermittent nature of the solar resource. How solar power is regulated and subsidized today.

  • Week 8: Nuclear Power

    How nuclear fission works and how it’s harnessed in modern nuclear plants. How much nuclear power costs and how much it’s used, including the stagnation in its use since the 1990’s and the prospects for its revival. Details on the hazards and costs of nuclear waste and power plant accidents. The connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

  • Week 9: Demand Reduction and Efficiency

    Reducing energy demand, by changing behavior or making devices more efficient, can reduce environmental harms – sometimes while saving money! But are there limits to this strategy? Can humanity reduce demand and aim towards a lower-energy future?

Faculty

  • Portrait of David Keith
    Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences; Professor of Public Policy, Harvard Kennedy School
  • Portrait of Daniel Thorpe
    Research Fellow, Energy and Environment

Associated Schools

  • Harvard Faculty of Arts & Sciences

Enroll now.
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