Five questions about sustainability with Giri Venkataramanan

Posted on 21. Jun, 2011 by in Academic Departments, Electrical and Computer Engineering, Environment and Sustainability, Issues, Magazine, People, Research, Students

Giri Venkataramanan

Giri Venkataramanan. Photo: Jeff Miller.

“A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”

Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Giri Venkataramanan uses this Aldo Leopold quote to sum up the idea of sustainability—yet notes that sustainability is much like an onion, with many layers and many variables. “No one person can rightfully say what sustainability is or should be,” he says. “Sustainability pervades everything.”

Venkataraman’s research focuses on the major aspects of electrical power conversion systems and optimizing these systems for the future. While on sabbatical, he applied his research on rural wind turbine building projects in four countries. He says learning involves doing, and this belief has made him an exceptionally well-regarded instructor. Among his most recent teaching awards is the 2011 UW-Madison Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award. Venkataramanan has taught a variety of power conversion and sustainability-related courses, including a section of Introduction to Engineering that taught students the engineering principles of wind energy and how to build actual turbines. He also is involved with students as faculty director of the UW-Madison chapter of Engineers Without Borders.

1. What does the term “sustainability” mean to you?
To me, sustainability represents a vibrant community that does not have to worry about natural, cultural, technical, political, social and intellectual resources to maintain its “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” for generations to come.

2. What drives your passion for sustainability?

I spent my youth in a water-stressed community due to the local groundwater table dropping by about 100 feet within a generation because of unsustainable harvests. As I grew up, I have found it hard not to observe this trend being persistent, and continuing to grow on a global scale, and extending into realms that go much beyond water. My observations turned into a passion through my readings of visionaries. I would list Thoreau, Leopold, Muir, Wright and Schumacher, and the list grows. Of course, my years among the mighty mountains in Montana and the (mostly) blue lakes in Wisconsin have only served to fuel my passion.

3. How do you apply this passion in your research?
The field of power conversion that I focus on naturally addresses issues in energy sustainability through its enabling relationship to wind power, solar power, energy efficiency, etc. More recently, I have consciously strived to extend the work across the boundaries into more human-scale applications in deference to the “small is beautiful” paradigm toward sustainability.

4. What prompted you to develop the certificate in sustainability?
As I was developing an education proposal with a relatively modest scope in response to the program that is now framed under Engineering Beyond Boundaries, several College of Engineering colleagues found that we were all responding in our own ways to address the broadly emerging societal concern on sustainability. I think the certificate program brought these efforts together under a collective identity for undergraduates— it was an organic development that grew from our constituents.

5. What are a couple of the top misconceptions people seem to have about sustainability?

I think it is easy to fall into a trap that may narrowly focus only on balancing the energy equation, the water equation, or the dollar equation, etc. It is this trap that has gotten us to where we are today. Until we frame the question to form a holistic picture and examine what development and growth means to us, we cannot address sustainability. Words like “holistic” do not resonate well among us engineers and scientists. We are afraid to challenge ourselves and step outside our disciplinary norms, fearing a loss of our discipline in the process. But the process has begun; it is time for sifting and winnowing.

Certificate in Engineering for Energy Sustainability
In the face of increasing global population and economic development, the equity and sustainability of energy resources are key issues at the center of public discourse today. The Certificate in Engineering for Energy Sustainability, which debuted in fall 2009, offers undergraduate students a suite of courses addressing energy sustainability that span across the engineering curriculum, with firm roots in real- world design and engineering practices. These courses range in topic from environmental economics and renewable energy systems to biorefining and transportation engineering.

Venkataramanan says the certificate could be a stepping-stone to work in NGOs or nonprofit organizations devoted to sustainability. In the private sector, there is growth in the solar photovoltaics and wind energy economies. The field also is ripe for entrepreneurship. The flexibility in choosing courses also enables students to explore how they might lead this cultural and technological change in ways they can’t imagine today. “We have the Wisconsin Idea and it’s an identity that students pick up on as they go through their experience here,” Venkataramanan says. “I think sustainability will be another part of that tradition.”

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