Gathering Energy: The EI Blog

December 21, 2009 | Sanjoy Banerjee

In March 2008,  Sanjoy Banerjee arrived at City College’s Grove School of Engineering to establish the new CUNY Energy Institute as a significant player in energy technology research. Inaugurating the EI blog, Dr. Banerjee reflects on the Institute’s mission, its method and its mindset. He’ll be lending his voice to this space on a regular basis.

Every scientific research organization has its reason for being—its purpose.  Whether it is supported by a university, government or industry, every lab in every discipline has its ultimate aspirations and its short-term goals, the incremental successes that might put it a step or two closer to the holy grail—to each, its own.

At the CUNY Energy Institute, we don’t have a holy grail—we have any number of them. Or, depending on how you define the term, it could be said that we have no holy grail.

Our Institute is what I like to call energy agnostic. When it comes to developing new ways to generate, collect and store energy, we aren’t consumed by any one technology to the exclusion of all others, nor to any one resource or approach. Natural gas, coal and oil don’t sound very innovative, but there are  innovative ways to make the most of them. Solar and wind power are the enduring symbols of cutting-edge eco-friendliness—the embodiment of the green movement. But nobody’s yet figured out a way around the inevitable paradox of relying on natural resources: That they’re natural. It’s not always sunny or windy, and the energy generated when there is sun or wind has to be used right away. Solar power can’t be saved for a rainy day, and the energy generated when it’s gusty can’t be stored for use on days when flags cling to flagpoles. Meanwhile, nuclear power, perhaps the antithesis of solar and wind, might strike some as almost anachronistic three decades after Three Mile Island. But it’s hard to dispute that nuclear holds a vital place in our energy future.

My point is that they are all part of the picture. We cannot put all our belief and devotion into any one approach as if it were religion. That’s what I mean when I say we are energy agnostic. Or, if you prefer, energy ecumenical.

Even if you are just a casual follower of energy-technology developments, you may recall when hydrogen fuel cells were all the rage. It was just a few years ago, and for a while they were ballyhooed as the solution to the world’s energy problems–the holy grail. Fuel cell research is certainly still in the mix, but we live in a world of instant gratification. Once it became evident that fuel cells couldn’t live up to their press—at least not anytime soon—they were moved to the back burner.

The flavor of the month comes and goes.

We’re thinking a little bit more long-term here on the third floor of the Grove School of Engineering. And a little more broadly. If the overarching goal of American energy policy is to reduce or even eliminate our dependence on foreign oil, then no viable alternatives can be ignored. There doesn’t have to be one big answer—indeed, there won’t be. But there is one big question that must be addressed, and that’s what our work here is all about: Whether it is oil or coal or solar or nuclear, the one constant among the variables of these disparate sources of power is that the electricity they generate can’t be stored. We’re trying to change that. We want to find ways to warehouse electricity in small, economical packages. Small and economical enough to make electricity portable, like gasoline. That would bring us to a real holy grail: The ability to generate electricity whenever we can and use it whenever we want. That’s the world we imagine.

And that’s why I’m here. Coming to CUNY was a decision that meant leaving my home of 28 years, the University of California, Santa Barbara. But it was one that I saw clearly as a pathway to a unique opportunity. In launching the new CUNY Energy Institute, we were starting virtually from scratch. A year and a half later, we have the core of a growing faculty and staff of world-class researchers and teachers. Each brings a special focus and individual talent, but together we have a lab that thinks big, thinks broadly–and thinks with an open mind.  A problem as vast and complex as a nation’s energy consumption can’t be solved any other way.