About the content
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.
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.
- 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?
Certificate-earners will need chemistry and physics at the high school level, as well as basic algebra. However, the majority of the course is accessible to anyone.
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?
Week 10: Conclusion
Wrap-up and review.Wrap-up and review.
Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Research Fellow, Energy and Environment
Harvard University is a private Ivy League research university in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Established in 1636 and named for its first benefactor clergyman John Harvard, Harvard is the United States' oldest institution of higher learning, and its history, influence, and wealth have made it one of the world's most prestigious universities. The Harvard Corporation is its first chartered corporation. Although never formally affiliated with any denomination, the early College primarily trained Congregational and Unitarian clergy. Its curriculum and student body were gradually secularized during the 18th century, and by the 19th century, Harvard had emerged as the central cultural establishment among Boston elites. Following the American Civil War, President Charles W. Eliot's long tenure (1869–1909) transformed the college and affiliated professional schools into a modern research university; Harvard was a founding member of the Association of American Universities in 1900. A. Lawrence Lowell, who followed Eliot, further reformed the undergraduate curriculum and undertook aggressive expansion of Harvard's land holdings and physical plant. James Bryant Conant led the university through the Great Depression and World War II and began to reform the curriculum and liberalize admissions after the war. The undergraduate college became coeducational after its 1977 merger with Radcliffe College.
The university is organized into eleven separate academic units—ten faculties and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study—with campuses throughout the Boston metropolitan area: its 209-acre (85 ha) main campus is centered on Harvard Yard in Cambridge, approximately 3 miles (5 km) northwest of Boston; the business school and athletics facilities, including Harvard Stadium, are located across the Charles River in the Allston neighborhood of Boston and the medical, dental, and public health schools are in the Longwood Medical Area. The endowment of Harvard's is worth $37.1 billion, making it the largest of any academic institution.
Harvard is a large, highly residential research university. The nominal cost of attendance is high, but the university's large endowment allows it to offer generous financial aid packages. The Harvard Library is the world's largest academic and private library system, comprising 79 individual libraries holding over 18 million items. The University is cited as one of the world's top tertiary institutions by various organizations.
Harvard's alumni include eight U.S. presidents, several foreign heads of state, 62 living billionaires, 359 Rhodes Scholars, and 242 Marshall Scholars. To date, some 157 Nobel laureates, 18 Fields Medalists, and 14 Turing Award winners have been affiliated as students, faculty, or staff. In addition, Harvard students and alumni have won 10 Academy Awards, 48 Pulitzer Prizes, and 108 Olympic medals (46 gold, 41 silver and 21 bronze).
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