UT-Austin Energy Symposium lecture addresses challenges of becoming carbon-free


Ellen Stetchel, co-director of LightWorks at Arizona State University, speaks at the UT Energy Symposium on Tuesday. The event encouraged people to work together to create a world that uses sustainable energy.

Photo Credit: Skye Seipp | Daily Texan Staff

At the UT Energy Symposium on Tuesday, Ellen Stechel, the co-director of Arizona State University’s LightWorks, discussed how to transition to a carbon neutral world.  

The online session “How Many Hats Are Needed for a Low-Carbon Energy Transition?” is the UT Energy Institute’s first lecture of its 19th semester of the Energy Symposium. Stechel explained that the transition to a carbon neutral world will require the blending of science, engineering, politics and economics. The Energy Institute engages in research on energy issues and works with schools and departments to create energy-related courses, according to its website.

Stechel researches solar energy, and she said solar energy is a more equitable technology since the sun is a resource that is available everywhere. 

“The climate wars are won,” Stechel said. “We are in an unmistakable energy transition fueled by decreasing costs to renewables.”

Stechel said the transition to a carbon neutral world would include resources such as carbon dioxide direct air capture machines — which pull CO2 out of the atmosphere — and energy storage systems, among other tools. Stechel said it is necessary to find less harmful ways to manufacture carbon-based items such as fertilizer and cement. 

“We do believe there's an important role to play in many of the hard-to-decarbonize applications,” she said. “There are many challenges, but many opportunities.”


Stechel said the “elephant in the room” of decarbonization is the global population. She said while some suggest decarbonization can’t occur without population control, the biggest way to help is by educating women and raising people out of poverty.

“(Educating women) creates a positive feedback (loop), the workforce diversifies, you get better decisions, you get more innovation, … more children survive, less children are born (and the) population will stabilize all on its own,” Stechel said.

Carey King, Energy Institute assistant director and research scientist, said Stechel was brought on to bring a new voice to the conversation about the complications surrounding decarbonization. 

“I hope (the audience) gets out of it just the different levels of thinking about decarbonizing the economy, and they think about how science and engineering and economic ideas need to blend together,” King said.  

Stechel said she is optimistic that decarbonization can happen if there is an incentive within the economy to change. 

“We’ve got to get to where it’s a cyclical economy, not just relying on extracting new resources out of the ground,” Stechel said. “We do have to get to where we’re recycling, and we’re doing a terrible job right now.”