Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Energy Options for the 21st Century


The world consumption of fossil fuels, associated climate impacts and the options for a renewable energy economy are demanding solutions from today’s scientists, engineers, and policymakers. In this seminar, we will look at choices that can be envisioned for meeting the future energy needs of the United States and the rest of our planet, and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses. We'll explore the basic physics of energy sources, the technologies we might employ, and some of the intertwined public policy issues.

The first half of our course will survey possible energy technologies and develop an appreciation of the underlying physics to provide some quantitative estimates of the tradeoffs. We will explore the uses of energy in the US and world economy, and how we might change the resource mix going forward. We will explore fossil fuels, nuclear energy, biofuels, improving efficiency, renewables including wind, solar, tidal, hydropower and geothermal energy and learn how to compare their impacts and attractiveness with regard to global warming. In the second half of the course, the seminar members (individually or in groups) will be asked to prepare a discussion and paper on a selected technology or on a related public policy choice. An inquiring mind, but no previous expertise or course prerequisites, is required. We hope that you will learn to appreciate the need to bring quantitative estimates to the policy options in order to make rational choices for a sustainable world energy economy. We will use both lecture and discussion formats, and every class we critique material we find in the popular press in a short 15 minutes of “news and views”.

This Fall 2021 class is anticipated to be an in-person seminar; we are planning our field trips as in-person events to learn from local experts. We can’t predict what will unfold in University policy this fall, but in the unhappy event we have to shift to a virtual format, we will structure the class to allow remote participants to contribute to every aspect of the class.  

This seminar is most immediately accessible for first- and second-year students with some science background, but we are particularly interested in a balanced class with a mix of technology and public policy directions as we think the intersections of science and policy viewpoints foster great class discussions.


Meet the Instructor(s)

John Fox

"I am an adjunct professor in applied physics with longstanding research interests that center on particle-beam dynamics and high-speed signal-processing systems. In the last 20 years I have been increasingly interested in energy technologies and policies, and have tried to produce generations of Stanford students interested and qualified to contribute as energy researchers as well as policy advocates. My technology interests include energy and transportation technologies, and I have an active research program in optimal control methods for plug-in hybrid automobiles. I am also interested in how societal desires and value (in land use, urban design, and architecture) influence the demand for and choices of energy. I have been honored with the Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching, and I am a Fellow of the American Physical Society."