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UVa to spend $60 million on clean energy efforts

The University of Virginia is putting its money where people drink and breathe and live.

The university is dedicating $60 million and its research teams to look into ways to develop clean energy and to help local community find the best ways to respond to climate-driven problems.

“These research teams are planning an exciting two-pronged approach,” Vice President for Research Melur K. “Ram” Ramasubramanian said. “On the one hand, we are focused on empowering local decision-makers with knowledge and resources. On the other, we are developing advanced clean-energy technologies by leveraging our scientific expertise in engineering and chemistry. We are investing in additional faculty to further strengthen teams and in state-of-the-art analytical and computational tools to make significant advances.”

Ramasubramanian, Provost Ian Baucom and Vice Provost for Academic Initiatives Megan Barnett are spearheading the ‘Grand Challenges’ effort, part of the university’s 2030 ‘Great and Good’ Plan initiatives focused on collaboration.

“The Grand Challenges are part of our commitment to invest in research that will address some of the most challenging contemporary issues of our time,” UVa President Jim Ryan said. “We will engage scholars, researchers and practitioners from across the university, each of whom will bring new perspectives to the work. And we will make sure the results are widely distributed for maximum impact.”

The effort is led by the UVa Environmental Resilience Institute. It will include faculty from different schools in a newly formed climate collaborative. The group hopes to connect researchers with policymakers, local officials and business leaders, and citizens.

The collaborative plans to imbed four to six research teams in specific localities dealing with climate-related challenges to benefit from research being conducted simultaneously at the school.

“Climate change is a global phenomenon, but people experience it differently depending on where they live and work,” said Karen McGlathery, director of the institute and professor of environmental sciences. “We want to make sure that our research is relevant to the community and that it will be translated into solutions to the challenges specific to that place.”

Initial sites will be located in Virginia, other states, and internationally. The model will be scaled up over time, aiming to one day serve as a global model for partnerships between universities and communities committed to solving environmental problems.

“It’s important that we pursue ‘co-production’ of knowledge with the communities,” said Larry Band, a professor in the Department of Engineering Systems and Environment. “New findings will leverage community members’ experience in their environments and their priorities. Ultimately, the climate solutions will be developed to benefit the communities, and they will need to be involved in their design and implementation.”

Funds will also support additional physical space near Grounds for interdisciplinary collaborations, and for hosting environmental practitioner rellows from a wide range of areas, including sustainability entrepreneurs, former heads of government agencies, community activists and artists.

Developing clean energy will be spearheaded by a second team of researchers from Engineering and Arts & Sciences, with an eye toward scalable solutions. Solar energy is arguably the leading carbon-neutral source that can supply the global demand for energy, but it must be converted to useable and storable forms of energy through chemical and molecular processes known as catalysis.

The university has faculty members focusing on catalysis in several departments, and the hire of four to six new faculty members will build on this strength and bring crucial additional new expertise.

The expanded team will implement important new infrastructure to support state-of-the-art research efforts and enable the translation of fundamental knowledge to projects that have potential scalability.

The University also plans to provide seed funding for clean energy research collaborations and develop an Environmental Entrepreneurship Initiative to help launch nonprofit and for-profit ventures, and strengthen the regional clean energy entrepreneurship ecosystem.

The Grand Challenges Fund is providing $50 million of the total for the environmental initiative, with the partnering schools adding at least $10 million more.


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