Michael Webber

Speech Topics

This talk focuses on global energy trends, with additional insights on US energy trends. The worldwide energy sector is going through dramatic shifts in energy demand, end-uses, and sources. Population growth and economic growth are driving up total demand. Industrialization, electrification and motorization are changing how we use energy. And a policy push for domestic, low-carbon and renewable fuels is changing our sources of energy. At the same time, we are entering an era where markets, technologies and policies are enabling dramatic increases in U.S. production of oil, gas, wind, solar and bioenergy that is affecting global economies, the environment, and our national security posture. In parallel, our energy and information sectors are merging to form smarter energy systems and more energy-intensive information systems. For this talk, Dr. Webber will give an entertaining and big-picture overview of global energy trends mixed in with humorous anecdotes, historical snippets, and unexpected examples that will give a surprising look into the future of energy.

Energy and water are precious, global resources, and they are interconnected. The energy sector uses a lot of water — the thermoelectric power sector alone is the largest user of water in the U.S., withdrawing 200 billion gallons daily for powerplant cooling. Conversely, the water sector is responsible for about twelve percent of national energy consumption for moving, pumping, treating, and heating water. This interdependence means that droughts can cause energy shortages, and power outages can bring the water system to a halt. Given recent trends towards increasingly water-intensive energy and energy-intensive water, the problems might become more extreme if the currently segregated funding, policy-making, and oversight paradigm of these resources are not integrated. For this talk, Dr. Webber will build from his extensive body of research, his course lectures, and his congressional testimony to share his perspective on the global nexus of energy and water to outline trends while identifying technical and policy options that might mitigate the challenges.

In this engaging lecture, Dr. Webber will identify the key global energy trends, and their impacts on business. These trends include shifts in energy consumption, changes in end-uses of energy, policy pressure on the sources of energy, and merger of energy and information. Webber will give an entertaining and big-picture overview of these major energy trends mixed in with humorous anecdotes, historical snippets, and unexpected examples to give a surprising look into the future of energy. In particular, this talk will focus on the business opportunities that are emerging from these trends and will reveal the shifting philosophies that are taking place for the business sector. These shifts include a transition from old economic theory (cost-based capitalism) to new economic theory (value-based capitalism). Webber will reveal how this trend towards a service economy opens up the opportunity for businesses to increase profit margins while decreasing resource consumption, which will simultaneously boost the economy and protect the environment.

This talk will introduce both the technology and the associated economic and environmental tradeoffs of hydraulic fracturing for production of oil and gas from shale formations. Using entertaining examples, funny anecdotes, and multimedia including custom animations and movie clips, this talk will put the shale phenomenon into historical context, explain what it means for the global energy picture, and enumerate the various upside benefits and downside risks that its growth offers for the United States. In particular, this talk will examine the water impacts (good and bad) from shale production. In addition, the potential for natural gas as a transition fuel and enabler or inhibitor of renewable alternatives will be discussed, ultimately leading to a potentially surprising conclusion.

Energy and food are precious, global, and interconnected resources. The food sector uses a surprising amount of energy for growing, reaping, transporting, preparing and disposing of the food. In parallel, with a global push for biofuels, the energy sector is increasingly using a lot of food. This tends generates resource competition creating a variety of moral dilemmas along the lines of food vs. fuel. vs. feed. However, potential for cooperative interactions also exists where waste streams from each can be used for the other. For example, food waste and agricultural waste can be used to generate biogas that can be used on-site for heat or power generation. Additionally, powerplant waste in the form of CO2 emissions can be used to produce commodities such as baking soda (for food) or algae (for feed). This talk will use funny anecdotes and illustrative examples to address macro trends related to energy and food and give a brief history of the role energy plays for enhancing agricultural productivity (including the original Green Revolution), while also covering food waste, food miles, organic vs. conventional farming, and the non-obvious tradeoffs associated with local food production.


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Michael Webber is the Deputy Director of the Energy Institute, Josey Centennial Fellow in Energy Resources, Co-Director of the Clean Energy Incubator at the Austin Technology Incubator, and Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, where he trains a new generation of energy leaders through research and education at the intersection of engineering, policy, and commercialization. He has authored more than 200 scientific articles, columns, books, and book chapters, including an op-ed in the New York Times and features in Scientific American.  A highly sought public speaker, he has given more than 175 lectures, speeches, and invited talks in the last few years, such as testimony for hearings of U.S. Senate committees, keynotes for business meetings, plenary lectures for scientific conferences, invited speeches at the United Nations and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, and executive briefings at some of the nation’s leading companies.

As a professor, Dr. Webber has taught undergraduate and graduate courses at UT Austin since 2007 across departments as diverse as mechanical engineering, chemical engineering, liberal arts, business, geosciences, public affairs, and undergraduate studies.  His teaching has been honored three separate times with major awards from the University of Texas System.  Dr. Webber’s research focuses on the convergence of policy, technology, and resource management related to energy and the environment. Government agencies such as the Department of Energy and non-governmental organizations such as UNESCO have featured Dr. Webber’s research in their policy-making decisions.  His expertise, opinions, and research have been published, cited or featured in many media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal,New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle,USA Today,NPR, PBS, The Daily Telegraph,BBC, ABC, CBS, Discovery,Popular Mechanics, New Scientist, MSNBC, and the History Channel.

Since launching in March 2013, his syndicated television special, Energy at the Movies, has been telecast more than 140 times on more than 75 PBS stations in 25 states.  The special bridges the gap between academic discourse and popular culture by synthesizing expert analysis of Hollywood films into digestible lessons on the science and history of energy.  Energy at the Movies has reached over 37 million households in the United States, with a follow up series in development.

His capstone class “Energy Technology and Policy” was launched as a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) titled “Energy 101” September 2013 through a partnership with edX. More than 5000 students signed up for the course during the first three days of its registration period, and within four months 42,000 students from around the world were registered.  The global scope of the Energy 101 MOOC fits in with Webber’s motto of changing the way the world thinks about energy.  He has also offered the course as part of executive education programs in Austin, Houston, Washington DC, and in Durham, North Carolina.

Dr. Webber received his BA with High Honors in Plan II Liberal Arts and his BS with High Honors in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Texas at Austin.  He then received both a MS and a PHD in mechanical engineering from Stanford University where he was a National Science Foundation Fellow.  He then served as a senior scientist at Pranalytica, where he invented sensors for homeland security, industrial analysis, and environmental monitoring.  He holds four patents as a result of his research.  He then transitioned to the RAND Corporation studying energy, innovation, manufacturing, and national security.  Dr. Webber is one of the originators of Pecan Street Incorporated, a public-private partnership in Austin, Texas, running the nation’s largest smart grid experiment.   He lives with his wife and three children in Austin, TX.


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