Everyone has turned on a light switch. It doesn’t require much thought. There’s just a quick flick, and then back to everyday life. At an energy crisis symposium yesterday, experts warned that if we don’t start thinking about that light switch soon, the world will soon be left in the dark.

Sarah Royce

That’s the analogy Keith Trent, chief strategy and policy officer for Duke Energy – one of the nation’s largest electric power companies – used to describe the need for energy conservation.

More than 400 people gathered in Rackham Auditorium yesterday to hear experts speak about the state of the world’s energy supply at the Energy Science, Technology and Policy Symposium. The event’s keynote speaker was U.S. Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman, who announced a $500 million plan to reduce gasoline consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, increase the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and reduce dependence on what he called “hostile and unstable” regimes. Bodman also announced a preliminary plan that would speed development and production of hybrid vehicles.

By combining internal combustion with an electric battery, current hybrid models can travel for about 40 miles without burning fuel.

Bodman said his plan would “reform and modernize the standards for automobiles,” and increase the efficiency of hybrid vehicles.

He also announced a longer-term push to establish three energy bioscience institutions in the United States.

According to this plan, the Energy Department would invest $375 million over the next five years into the institutions. He said researchers would work to “tap the secrets of natural processes” in order to find cost-effective solutions to the looming energy crisis.

Bodman said he recognized that some of the technologies needed to feed the world’s growing demand for energy have already been invented, but it will be up to the next generation – current undergraduates and high school students – to find sustainable solutions.

Rosina Bierbaum, dean of the School of Natural Resources and Environment and a speaker at the symposium, also recognized students’ contributions to addressing the problems caused by energy consumption.

She said that in part because of University students’ effort, Michigan is now one of the few states to report its greenhouse gas emissions.

Although the speakers explored several alternative sources of energy like nuclear power, wind power and the biological sources Bodman intends to research, there was a general consensus that all of these solutions would only be temporary.

The panelists agreed that one possible solution to alleviate the burdens of what President Bush has called America’s “oil addiction” has been shining in humanity’s eyes all along.

According to Nathan Lewis, a chemistry professor at the California Institute of Technology, the sun could meet the world’s energy needs.

While obstacles remain in harnessing and storing the sun’s power, architect William McDonough has been designing buildings – including renovations to the Dana Building – that imitate organisms that can successfully harness the Sun’s energy like trees do.

His buildings use natural light and clever temperature regulation and are topped with green roofs composed of the plants originally displaced by the building.

While there are plenty of proposed solutions to the current energy deficit, they will all take time and money to implement. The immediate answer, the speakers concluded, was simply to use less energy.

Even Trent, the Duke Energy executive, agreed that energy efficiency is key.

He said customers have to change the way they think about electricity so his company won’t need to build more power plants and consume more resources.

Yesterday’s event was organized by the University’s Office of the Vice President for Research and the recently revived Michigan Memorial Phoenix Energy Institute, which now leads the University’s efforts to solve some of the world’s energy issues.

– Angela Kemp contributed to this report.

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