David Allen on Sustainability Research and Education

Watch a video of the talk here.

What does a green grid look like?

That’s the question David Allen set out to answer as lead investigator for the first and second Texas Air Quality Studies, which involved hundreds of researchers drawn from around the world. Allen, Gertz Regents Professor of Chemical Engineering and the director of the Center for Energy and Environmental Resources at the University of Texas at Austin, spoke about sustainability education and research as part of the Dean’s Seminar Series on March 10.

The air quality studies, conducted in 2000 and in 2007, looked at the formation, composition, and day-night cycles of ozone and particulate matter, as well as how these pollutants are affected by weather. Allen and his team looked at how daily, seasonal, and yearly dispatching decisions of energy-generating plants can influence air quality in the state.

“If we can be smart about how air quality is going to react to emissions, we can send emissions to where they would have the least impact,” he said.

How to shift around power generation to improve air quality depended on the particulates that each plant produced and the weather forecast — which, in Texas, is difficult to predict.

“They say in Texas, if you don’t like the way the wind blows, wait a few minutes,” Allen said. The team created a playbook for switching power plants based on meteorological conditions and got the local utility company to test it out. Ultimately, the air quality in Austin, which was on the border of violating federal ozone standards, improved to non-violating standards.

“The community benefitted by getting better air quality,” Allen said. Researchers are still looking at all the factors of the system — whether the cost equals the benefit, what effect reducing nitrogen dioxide has on carbon dioxide, how a carbon market might affect the system, and how the system would react to drought and heat.

In addition to his research, Allen also studies sustainability education. In 2008 he and his collaborators conducted the first benchmark study of sustainability in education. They found that 80 percent of the top engineering programs had classes in sustainability, but most were geared toward upperclassmen and graduate students.

At the University of Texas at Austin, Allen has begun teaching freshmen students a course on sustaining the planet, which teaches them how the atmosphere and water cycles work. That teaches students to think about larger questions of sustainability.

“How do we understand how our natural and engineered worlds work?” he said. “And how can we as societies interact and intervene?”