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Interview with Sally Benson

Luogo: Roma
Data: 25/03/2009
Canale: English
Autori: F. Falconieri, M. Maffioletti, R. Ciardi

We are at the American embassy in Rome to meet Ms Sally Benson an internationally-recognised scientist and a Professor of the Department of Energy Resources Engineering in the School of Earth Sciences of Stanford University. Last January she was appointed Director of the Global Climate and Energy Project at Stanford  University. It’s a project group which carries out fundamental research on technologies that will permit the development of global energy systems with low greenhouse gas emissions.

I would like to start my interview with a very fundamental question: will it one day be possible to decouple anthropogenic energy usage from environmental damage?

I think that’s a complicated question. It’s may personal view that all forms of energy use will have some kind of environmental impact, be it use of land, be it emissions, be it some other ecosystem’s perturbation. So, what I think is important is that we understand that all energy technologies have some potential impact and we need to use the best methods we can to try to reduce the impact from any kind of energy use that we do. So, I think we have become aware, you know certainly we have become aware that fossil fuel emissions into the atmosphere create problems with global warming and I think we’re aware for example that wind can have impacts to birds, so our job as humans is to try to understand those impacts and minimize then through the use of advanced technology and being conscious of the environment.

Every now and then some new form of energy or technology  is hailed as the
final solution. For instance a few years ago here in Europe there was a lot of talking about hydrogen technology and today most people are convinced that fourth generation nuclear energy is the way out. What do you think?

I personally think that we need a mix of diversity of energy suppliers, I don’t think that there will be any one technology, partially because there are different situations in different areas. Some places, for example in the South west of the United States has tremendous solar resources, there are other  places with very important wind resources. So I don’t think one side fits all, so I think that we do one move towards diversity of things. The other thing that I think is that people perhaps don’t understand how deeply embedded is energy use into our society today and we have a tremendous enticement in our existing energy infrastructure. So I think the best that we can hope for is an evolution of our energy infrastructure into something that provides more environmentally benign energy system and I don’t believe any one type of technology will become the solver of all.

Do you think CO2 sequestration is a feasible technology?  

Absolutely. If you look at all the components, there are four parts: there is  caption, there is compression, there is transportation and then there is injection deep underground for one term or permanent storage and if you look at each one of those we know how to do it. Today we have experience with post combustion capture and pre combustion capture, all of which can be adapted today, we know how to compress CO2, that’s hundred thinly, we know how to transport CO2 very safely, there are thousand of kilometre of CO2 pipelines in the United States and then finally for CO2 injection, we have experience over twenty five collective years of  CO2 injection experience sequestration projects and we have more than thirty years of very large scale injection for CO2 enhance  or recovery. So all the pieces are there. So the challenge is to put them together and find a way to make it economical and cost effective.      
The Global Climate and Energy Project (GCEP) at Stanford University has major corporations such as Toyota and GE as partners, how much is it important that research institutions cooperate with  industrial corporations to develop sustainable energy technology?

I think it’s crucial. Actually it’s the reason that I came to Stanford University to work with GCEP is the opportunity to have co-operations together with the academic sector, and I think that it’s a perfect compliment or marriage because what we are good at doing at University is developing new ideas, developing new approaches, and what companies are good at is turning good ideas into products and services and making then commercial. So neither one of us can expect to make progress particularly on a issue so complex like energy without deep co-operation.

Do you think that people are aware that their behavior and the way they use energy in their own homes can make a difference too?
I think it depends on where you are. I’m from California and beginning in the nineteen seventies we had a  tremendous campaign on energy efficiency, energy efficient lighting, efficient windows, efficient appliances and so it on television, so every day newspapers and television, we hear a lot about it, so I think that if you are in an environment where people discuss it al lot I think that you do know, and as a matter of fact many people’s homes now are much more efficient than they used to be, but I don’t think every place is  like that, I think there are many places where they don’t get that kind if education and information so I think it’s extremely important to make people  aware, and also that you can save money. If you have more efficient lightning or more efficient windows, you need less heat and you pay less for your electricity bills. So it’s really a win-win situation for people to recognize that you do have an impact but there is a lot you can do to reduce your impact through more efficient appliances and so forth.

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