Dartmouth College’s New Energy Institute Hosts First Event

Valley News Staff Writer
Saturday, October 15, 2016

Hanover — Dartmouth College’s newest initiative in sustainability research kicked off on Friday afternoon with an earnest discussion on the betterment of global energy — and a question about accountability.

The Arthur L. Irving Institute for Energy and Society, the research center that Dartmouth College created last month thanks to an $80 million gift from the chairman of Irving Oil, has sparked a dispute on campus over bias and accountability in academia.

Critics have asked why Dartmouth would accept funding for energy research from an oil company, while administrators — who say they took the money on the condition that the institute would be independent of Irving — argue that the potential benefits to the environment are something that everyone, whether fans of Irving Oil’s or not, can get behind.

The institute held its first public lecture at the Tuck School of Business on Friday with Dan Reicher, a Stanford University professor who served as an energy adviser in the Clinton administration.

Reicher’s selection as speaker gave a hint of the interdisciplinary work and the connections between politics, policy and research that the Irving Institute likely will take on.

“It’s a great gift at a critical moment in shaping how we use energy both nationally and internationally,” Reicher said of the funding from the Irving family, which in the 1920s founded the business eventually known as Irving Oil.

Reicher, a 1978 Dartmouth alumnus, said he had seen a “keen interest, actually a yearning” among students to address energy issues head-on.

Over the course of more than an hour, Reicher, who runs the Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford, presented the audience of more than 100 with a comprehensive picture of the United States’ and the world’s energy systems, along with a multitude of means to improve them.

Much of the challenge of this “wonky” field, Reicher said, is making it accessible to a relatively indifferent public.

He remembered, for instance, having to announce a new standard in refrigerator efficiency, which, although yawn-inducing to the average American, promised to save enormous amounts of energy. 

Inspiration struck him at a news conference: Why not pun on one of Bill Clinton’s better-known campaign slogans? Soon after, Reicher said, Newsweek was hailing his promises of a “fridge to the 21st century.”

“It was my greatest day as a bureaucrat,” he said.

After Friday’s talk, student Francesca Gundrum addressed ethics among questions about transmission lines, microgrids, and the economics of home energy efficiency.

“Do you have faith in the institute to provide unbiased work, even with the attachment of Irving?” she asked Reicher.

“I think the proof will be in the pudding,” he said. “I think how you end up spending this money, what’s the degree of independence, what are the focus areas, what are the results — I think those will be the key questions. I’m optimistic.”

Reicher noted that plenty of other oil-connected money has gone to respected institutions. In the case of the Rockefeller family alone, he said, fossil-fuel money funded the Rockefeller Foundation, the Rockefeller Center at Dartmouth, Rockefeller University, and even the University of Chicago.

“So I don’t think we’re breaking any new ground here when it comes to money coming from the oil industry to a college or philanthropic cause,” Reicher said. “I think it can be done well. I’m confident it will be done well. It’s all about how it’s implemented, I guess.”

Gundrum, a senior, is a member of Divest Dartmouth, a group that wants the school to drop its holdings in fossil fuels from the college’s $4.5 billion endowment.

On Sept. 15, one day before Dartmouth announced the creation of the institute, Gundrum and her colleagues met with President Phil Hanlon, trustee Chairman Bill Helman, and trustee investment Chairman Rick Kimball for an on-the-record discussion about divestment.

The trustees and the college president expressed doubt as to whether divestment actually would impel fossil-fuel companies to change their practices, and repeatedly declined to set a timeline for a formal trustee vote on divestment.

Students countered that divestment was a symbolic, not a purely financial, measure, but college leaders did not appear convinced.

“I appreciate that you want to make an impact,” Hanlon told the students near the end of the meeting, according to an audio recording. “... I understand that. That’s great. You talk a lot about symbolism, and again, we are an academic institution. If we want to symbolize our commitment to the future, to the global energy system, we do it through investments in our academic work.

“That’s the biggest symbol, the most powerful symbol we can send.”

Rob Wolfe can be reached at rwolfe@vnews.com or at 603-727-3242.