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Start-Up U

September 18, 2009
by Lisa Margonelli
graphic of Steven Chu

With global warming breathing down our necks, energy is hot. And at Berkeley, green ideals are teaming up with that other green—money.

Venture capitalists are not known to haunt Sproul Plaza, with its drummers and dreamers, but last spring Silicon Valley’s financiers showed up in force. On March 21 they filed across the flagstones and into the Student Union auditorium to hear such scintillating discussions as “Carbon Regulation and the Impact on Innovation,” and “Energy Storage: Hydrogen, Batteries, and Beyond.” The draw was not the topics, but rather the 400 people sitting in the folding chairs. They encompassed the entire energy universe of California—researchers in architecture, chemistry, biology, engineering, and economics from Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; influential state regulators; the governor’s main man on economic growth; and corporate types representing companies ranging from Dow Chemical to solar entrepreneur SunPower.

The takeaway was obvious: With global warming breathing down our necks, energy is hot. And Berkeley, where brainpower is mingling with government power-brokers to implement the state’s greenhouse gas legislation, is even hotter. Having just announced a $500 million ten-year deal with oil giant BP to found a new Energy Biosciences Institute on campus, Steven Chu, the Nobel Prize winner and head of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), made a pitch for more: “We are seeking industry partnerships … We seek solutions. We don’t seek, dare I say, science papers anymore.”

Across campus, green ideals are teaming up with the other green—money. Typical of the new “double-greens” is the group that organized the March symposium, a multidisciplinary club of grad students called the Berkeley Energy and Resources Collaborative, or BERC. In just two years, BERC’s 300-plus members have presented dozens of events and inspired the creation of a new Center for Energy and Environmental Innovation at Haas business school.

Unlike previous generations of environmentalists, who saw capitalism as “part of the problem,” the new greens see it as part of the solution, if not the solution. Take the event’s organizer and BERC co-chair Merrian Fuller, a first-year MBA candidate at Haas. She spent her early 20s working in an environmental nonprofit, but had a conversion. “After being frustrated by the politics of NGOs, lack of money, and slow speed, I see business as an efficient way to make changes,” she said. To her, climate change is urgent and requires new rules. “We have to experiment much more and be willing to fail,” she said. “We have to realize some policies and initiatives might not work out.”

Thriving in this atmosphere requires global awareness and specific knowledge, which is what BERC provides—a network of curious experts eager to break out of their “silos.” During a night out with a few BERC members at Jupiter, the local watering hole, the conversation skitters among disciplines—from battery chemistry to climate law, to nanotech, to hedge fund priorities. Henry Stern, a Boalt law student who’s spending the summer working on greenhouse gas regulations for a judge at the California Public Utilities Commission, said he views his friends as a strange new hybrid generation. Its members combine tech savvy with business skills in pursuit of a “triple bottom line” of social change, environmental benefits, and profit. But everyone acknowledges that this will not be easy. At the moment, high-carbon energy is simply too cheap.

If BERC members are optimistic, it’s because big money is finally starting to follow the carbon. “Clean tech is nonpartisan,” remarked one student. “Even the big energy guys think there’s money in it.” Clean tech seems to offer something for everyone—especially in a country that’s tired of thinking about big problems such as the war in Iraq. “The only people who don’t like clean tech are the people who don’t like money,” joked another student.

BERC is a telling part of a large universe of energy initiatives at Berkeley. They range from hundreds of millions in new funding for biofuel research at both the university and LBNL to less-publicized work on solar energy, nanotechnology, battery technology, and ener- gy efficiency, as well as multidisciplinary energy policy, law, and market analysis. There’s also the Cal Climate Action Partnership (CalCAP), a campuswide program for greenhouse gas reduction. Although the $500 million research grant from BP to found the Energy Biosciences Institute has drawn the most attention and controversy—Chancellor Robert Birgeneau called it “our generation’s moon shot”—the university’s involvement in alternative energy is deep and complex. Berkeley has always been a place that talked about changing the world. Now that it has an opportunity, it first has to face change here on campus.

Seventy-six years ago, ernest Orlando Lawrence explored the mysteries and potential of the atomic nucleus with his cyclotron on the hill above Berkeley. This past June, an overflow lunchtime crowd squeezed into an auditorium on the same hill to hear Chris Somerville, the likely head of the Energy Biosciences Institute (EBI), explain why the world’s next big mystery is the cell wall. In a hesitant and somewhat oldfashioned style, Somerville described his radical mission—to create “disruptive technologies” for remodeling plants, enzymes, and organisms to produce fuels from plants. He gave the crowd a PowerPoint tour of the unstudied structures of the cell and the technological challenge that lies ahead, reminding his audience of the urgency at hand. “We’re not running out of fossil fuels, we’re running out of climate,” he quipped. “Climate is the sole driver for biofuels, in my opinion.”

The story of how Berkeley became the hub of a would-be biofuel boom reveals not only the formidable power of the university’s labs, but also the extraordinary influence its professors have on state leaders regarding what many see as a climate change emergency. The desire for speedy technological fixes is driving unprecedented collaborations among the university, government, and industry.

Long before there was much interest in investing millions of dollars to produce fuel from green plants, Berkeley academics were intimately involved in creating California’s pioneering greenhouse gas regulations. In late 2006, Goldman Public Policy professor Michael Hanemann and Energy and Resources Group professor Alex Farrell released an influential multipart report that contradicted conventional wisdom, arguing that California’s economy could benefit from greenhouse gas regulation. “California has a different culture,” says Hanemann, pointing to the gonzo-creativity of Silicon Valley and the state’s innovative regulations on smog and energy efficiency, which stimulated better emissions control and appliance efficiency. “Nationally, the first instinct is to preserve the status quo. In California the feeling is that greenhouse gasses are a challenge and we’ll rise to the challenge by using innovation. As a bonus, we might also get industrial and economic growth.” Convinced that early regulation could avoid environmental disaster and benefit the state’s economy, the governor and the California Legislature passed AB 32, the greenhouse gas legislation (see p. 36). These regulations, which could eventually allow expensive new technologies to compete with cheap, entrenched fuels such as oil, natural gas, and coal, made the very idea of a green tech “moon shot” feasible.

LBNL director Steven Chu looked at controlling greenhouse gas emissions as a grand physics problem, the way he might calculate the potential output of a Carnot heat engine. The challenge, he felt, was to figure out which low-carbon energy sources had the greatest theoretical output and the fewest barriers to production. If we wanted to meet all of the world’s increasing electricity needs with nuclear fission, he calculated, we’d need to erect a reactor every ten days and we’d have a terrible nuclear waste problem. He searched for technologies that were in their infancy, where improvements might make a big difference. That eliminated wind turbines, which— according to Chu’s calculation of the “Betts limit”—are already close to their theoretical efficiency of 59 percent. “When you start with a problem like energy, you have to look at what are the ultimate limitations. And then you work back from those.”

By process of elimination, Chu arrived at two promising avenues for research: energy efficiency—a field pioneered by Berkeley physicist Art Rosenfeld—and harnessing the power of the sun. Sunlight can be captured by both technology and plants, which led him to identify the fields of photovoltaics, nanotechnology, electrochemistry, artificial photosynthesis, catalysis (producing hydrogen from water using sunlight), batteries (to hold energy produced by solar cells), and biofuels. Chu imagined a spectrum of biofuels, ranging from ethanol—which requires modest leaps in innovation—to more technically challenging fuels, such as butane and octane, that could be used by both airplane and conventional auto engines. Chu dubbed these sun-related projects Helios.

In Chu’s view, the magnitude and speed of climate change calls for a close partnership between research institutions, government regulators, and industry. By setting standards and establishing incentives, smart regulators can push industry, setting in motion big technological changes. “Getting technology deployed is best done in a business space,” he says. “You can develop technology at research institutions, as has been done in the past, but there’s a time delay. I don’t think we have a time luxury,” he asserts. “We want to partner with industry early because industry’s strength is that they can make technology scalable.” Chu understands that not everyone shares this view. “A small segment doesn’t understand that moving fast is better than maintaining purity,” he says. “Monasteries are good places, but they’re not good for science.”

When word went out in 2006 that energy giant BP was soliciting applications for a major project, the university and LBNL began writing a proposal (based on Helios initiatives) at what research vice chancellor Beth Burnside describes as “warp speed.” Although the initiative was to be a ten-year project funded by BP at $50 million a year (roughly three times the $16 million the university received in corporate funding for research in 2006), Burnside later described the plan as “an ordinary though a little bit oversized industry-sponsored research project.” At the news that Berkeley had won the contest, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates quickly applauded it.

Reactions on campus came at warp speed, as well. Graffiti decrying “bperkeley” went up overnight. At a March faculty senate forum, Ignacio Chapela, an outspoken critic of an earlier deal between the Novartis corporation and the university, described the agreement with BP as “Faustian” and compared it to “prostitution.” Scientists involved in the project bristled. A group of faculty requested a blue-ribbon oversight panel for the deal, but that was tabled when a vote in the faculty senate endorsed the idea that corporate funding is an issue of academic freedom. Bad feelings, and many questions, remained.

“Some of the rhetoric was silly,” says Haas professor Severin Borenstein, “but people had legitimate concerns. The question was: Is this being done in a way to protect the free flow of information and independence of the university? The protestors served a good function of reminding people to watch the details. And if the protestors do derail the agreement, it will have been for a good reason—because more discussion was needed.”

For some proponents, the whole purpose of the arrangement was speed. “It would have simplified things if the money to do this research came from the government,” Somerville stated, “but if you really want to change the energy sector, you have to be partnered by big energy companies.” He says the relationship would give academics at EBI “a reality check,” shorten the path to commercialization, and offer the university an opportunity to influence BP by changing its decision-making processes. “I think that’s the biggest return BP will get on its investments—knowledge is empowering to make good decisions,” he said. According to Somerville, if the deal is signed, BP would like to spin out private start-up companies as an efficient way of commercializing the basic knowledge developed in the lab.

For Berkeley, which has seen public funding for research fall for decades, EBI would be an oppor tunity not only to get hold of private funding, but also to collateralize the university’s knowledge on par with Stanford, which has contributed commercial ideas worth incalculable amounts to Silicon Valley’s economy. “UC has recognized that they’re perceived as unfriendly to business,” declares Sean Randolph of the Bay Area Economic Forum, who terms Berkeley’s biofuel initiative “game changing” for the region’s economy. In alternative energy, Somerville said, “The university is ahead of the game and has the chance to be the center and hold it for a long time, maybe forever.”

Californians have lived through booms in gold, aerospace, computer hardware, software, the Internet, and biotech industries, so we’re willing to believe in the next one, even if it’s a complicated bet on clean tech. Now, the federal government is also willing to back the bet. In June, the Department of Energy awarded a $125 million, five-year grant for research on making ethanol from cellulose. The lab receiving the grant, called JBEI (Joint BioEnergy Institute), is a collaboration between Berkeley, UC Davis, Stanford, LBNL, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia National Lab. It will be headquartered somewhere around Emeryville and run by Jay Keasling, the Berkeley scientist who pioneered synthetic biology. JBEI is being described as a “start-up” to EBI’s think tank.

More money is probably on the way. Asked about funding for Helios, Chu declined to say what was in the pipeline but suggested that more announcements will be coming soon. Meanwhile, Professor Dan Kammen has proposed a California Climate Institute that would have a budget bigger than EBI’s. He describes the Institute as a “do tank,” where state regulators would work side-by-side with campus researchers to solve greenhouse gas issues quickly. There is talk of soliciting foundations for funds to set up another institute to study the social and environmental impacts of biofuels. And the newly proposed Center for Energy and Environmental Innovation hopes to become a formal pipeline between university researchers and area businesses. It’s impossible to know the eventual sum of these formal and informal, state and private initiatives, but it’s already larger than anything in the university’s history.

On the day the Department of Energy announced its grant, the press was given a whirlwind tour of Keasling’s laboratory in Emeryville. The space was crowded with large gas chromatographs, incubators, and dozens of young scientists methodically moving test tubes and tallying charts while music from portable radios played. A news crew asked one of Keasling’s lab scientists to explain how a bioreactor works (it’s essentially a highly calibrated still—something like the ones used to create moonshine), and after three tries the scientist was still caught in a technical discussion about what this smallish device means for the future of the planet. “Imagine you’re explaining it to a child,” said an exasperated TV reporter.

For all the hopes placed in the biofuels initiatives, most of us understand relatively little about the science behind biofuels—never mind the commercial relationships, or the impact of their innovations on farming communities far from the Bay Area. When Chris Somerville gave his presentation at LBNL, he described green plants as giant solar collectors, working doubletime to turn sunlight into chemical energy to power transportation while storing carbon. Somerville surmised that the world could meet its need for transportation fuels with 1 percent of the world’s land planted with miscanthus, a perennial that converts energy from the sun at 2 percent efficiency and doesn’t appear to require much water, fertilizer, or cultivation.

Although 1 percent sounds like a modest amount of land, in global terms it’s nearly three times the land area of Spain. In short order, land could replace oil as the world’s most valuable commodity, quickly sending the greatest impacts of Berkeley’s homegrown “disruptive technology” to the farthest, poorest corners of the earth. “I can’t tell you with certainty that we can afford 1 percent,” Somerville said. “It will be something we’ll look at deeply and broadly here at the Institute—is there enough water and enough land, and what are the consequences to the societies that are sitting on that land?”

Can Berkeley troubleshoot the ecological and political consequences of a global transformation on this scale? “The biofuel initiative is important, good for the campus and good for society, but I’m concerned about how much they’ll pay attention to the potential impacts,” says Boalt professor and director of the Environmental Law Program Daniel Farber, reflecting the opinion of many I talked with on campus. “Every problem began life as a solution. Will we solve our problems and create new ones?”

The university’s difficulty in assessing these potential impacts is personified by the hyperhybrid work/life of Dan Kammen, who is on the EBI project’s executive committee. Trained in physics and now a professor of nuclear engineering, Kammen first became interested in alternative energy in the late 1980s. He later started an interdisciplinary study of energy technology, policy, and development, a history reflected in his office bookshelf, where an English-Xhosa dictionary sits near Plutonium, Power, and Politics and Biomass Energy Policy in Africa. A professor at the Energy Resources Group, the Goldman School of Public Policy, and the nuclear engineering department, as well as the founder of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, Kammen, perhaps more than any other faculty member at Berkeley, has adopted multiple public roles: climate change analyst, policy wonk, technological innovator, and consultant to high-profile green tech investors such as British tycoon Richard Branson.

Kammen’s media savvy and upbeat enthusiasm for green tech give him the air of a friendly host on the Discovery Channel, but he is frank about the gamble the university has helped California take. “We need to make good on our commitment to AB 32, which we really don’t know how to do. We need to actually do what we said we could in our op-ed pieces.” He describes California as a guinea pig for new technologies, markets, and regulations, and a magnet for investment in new industries. And risks? “History is strongly on the side that it’s more important to make a decision than to make the globally optimum decision.”

Early in this new history, Kammen’s life is already “hectic beyond sensible.” During a half-hour interview in his office, he receives phone calls from reporters, a state official, and a documentary crew as he prepares to take the red-eye to Washington, D.C., to promote Berkeley’s energy initiatives. If this sounds impossibly taxing, it’s further complicated by Kammen’s dual roles as one of the most visible supporters of the initiative and as an influential critic of its implementation. “So far, unfortunately, our administration has sent the wrong message and has acted like this is a battle to be won against protestors,” he says, adding that what’s needed are mechanisms to monitor the university’s relationship with EBI, and a degree of transparency.

To that end, one afternoon a week Kammen meets with a group of grad students who have questions and some deep reservations about the project. On the day I attended, for more than two hours the students aired their worries, many concerning basic questions of transparency. The administration has said that once the contract is signed it will be posted on the Internet. Henry Stern, the Boalt student from BERC, who has met with the administration as a representative of the Graduate Assembly, was drawing up a public memo asking the administration to make good on the promise. Concerns about the contract include the role of the 50 or so BP researchers who will be doing proprietary research at EBI facilities; the licensing for intellectual property; and the relationship between the EBI and JBEI, Keasling’s federally funded “start-up” project. Kammen, still upbeat, coached the group on how to press their cases. “It’s not clear where JBEI begins and EBI ends,” he conceded, and suggested that one of the students ask the administration.

The students also worry that the university does not have policies and institutions in place to disseminate information and process problems that arise about the many new initiatives. “The policies we have in place might not scale well,” says a molecular biologist, warily eyeing the crowded walls of Kammen’s office, as if wondering how this ad hoc institution could handle the enormity of the slated projects. The students questioned how the university will balance commercial funding with its public mission. For example, if biofuels could be made from either an unpatented mixture of native grasses or a patented crop such as miscanthus, will researchers feel pressure to endorse the patented crop because it’s more likely to reward funders?

On the integrity of the project over time, Kammen is less upbeat. “This issue won’t come to a head until a patent says that one approach is better,” he says, suggesting that the result could be decided because of money or some vague mix of financial concerns and analysis. “That’s where we’ll know. Over the next ten years there will be an ongoing battle over open and transparent research. We have the ability to police this. Will we use it or cop out?” But like Somerville, Kammen thinks Berkeley may have a greater influence on BP than the reverse. “BP picked Berkeley because of its social consciousness. Combined, Berkeley and BP could enforce good decisions better than either could alone.”

Social science students fear that the EBI will not award grants to study the wider impacts of the project, although the EBI’s assitant director says that a percentage of funding is earmarked for social sciences. Kammen mentioned that fully a quarter of EBI’s first-round grant proposals were for social science research, but he doesn’t know how many will be funded. The executive committee, which gets the first look at the proposals, is entirely trained in the physical sciences. Further, Kammen acknowledged, “The process is clearly biased against people who are against the project.”

At this, the students begin arguing among themselves, revealing a deeper fault line between disciplines. One social scientist describes the companies owned by Somerville and Keasling as a conflict of interest (Sommerville has already divested from his start-up, Mendel). The plant molecular biologist is surprised by the criticism. “It’s standard to let scientists make start-ups,” he says in a tone suggesting that outside funding is as important as test tubes for biologists today. The social scientist, scandalized by that response, says, “I think it’s a good time to ask how money is changing the scientific questions that are getting answered.” Kammen suggests the student might look into how corporate funding has influenced medical research, to see if there are potential parallels with biofuels. He says it’s time for students and faculty to pursue outside funding from foundations to investigate the social impacts of biofuels.

The exchange speaks to a deeper rift on campus. A few decades of pursuing commercial funding have left a gap between the entrepreneurial sciences and those with nonprofit funding from government and foundations. It’s possible that hashing out the EBI project will bring about more moments like this one, encouraging the entrepreneurial sciences to look more critically at the relationship between their work and their funding, and perhaps leading the social scientists to more aggressively seek funding for critical studies. “Maybe we should say we want a slice of the EBI pie,” muses one of the students, “and then criticize the pie.” But it’s also possible that the social sciences may follow the physical further into the corporate domain, simply because traditional social science subjects (such as rural ethnographies or studies of traditional farming practices) will suddenly have commercial value to companies hoping to start large biofuel businesses abroad.

The stress of dealing with climate change is even changing academic disciplines themselves. “There’s a breakdown happening, a disciplinary crisis about what our ‘knowledge’ is,” a chemical engineering student explained to me later. “The chemistry we grew up on was distillation columns, but now it’s Keasling and synthetic biology.” Students worry that the rigid criteria for academic success in a single discipline may be poor training for the kind of interdisciplinary studies they’ll need in order to understand the energy revolution that’s growing here.

If the initial issues in the biofuels project seem largely procedural, they quickly cut to compelling questions about the proper role of the university in public life. “If you’re setting out to change the world, the institution has a responsibility to examine how to incorporate and digest a relatively large group of people and activities,” says political science professor emeritus Todd LaPorte. LaPorte investigated the campus reaction to the Novartis deal in the 1990s for the National Academy of Sciences, and he sees parallels to the current initiatives. “Technology inevitably produces surprises. A public university has a wide range of obligations to society, and as an organization you ought to know what those surprises could be.”

How do you find those surprises in advance? LaPorte’s work on aircraft carriers and nuclear power plants suggests that organizations that successfully manage mistakes have deliberately developed cultures encouraging self-criticism and rewarding employees for owning up to errors quickly. They also set up structures to preserve institutional memories from one generation to the next. Successful organizations institutionalize checks and balances and encourage rigorous debate, rather than relying on ad hoc groups to police themselves. “It doesn’t mean you don’t trust those who are doing the work,” he says. “But the institution needs early warning.”

LaPorte is hopeful that the university can manage its green tech initiative carefully. He proposes a joint faculty senate–administration special task force that would continue for several years. He imagines a large institutional effort to study the effects—large and small—of the project, both as a way of teaching other institutions and as a means of identifying potential problems at an early stage, before they affect the mission or reputation of the university, or the world. “We should treat this project with the same level of rigor and examination that we devote to all our work,” he says.

Whatever its labs produce, Berkeley’s most valuable commodity for California will always be debate. This June, the UC Energy Institute (UCEI) held its “camp,” a yearly affair at which energy economists gather to discuss unpublished papers, eat pizza, and wear T-shirts reading “I blacked out at UCEI Electricity Camp.” The weeklong camp takes place in the Institute’s offices, in a smallish, stuffy room furnished with mismatched chairs and whiteboards. High on the main whiteboard, above some mathematical formulas, are the words “Climate policy must be free.” It’s less a rallying cry than a reflection of the economists’ beef that the public wants greenhouse gas regulation to come to them free of cost, or at a net gain. To economists, the most efficient way to change personal and market behavior is to tax the heck out of carbon. The clash between the politics of climate change (free, free, free!) and the economics of it (without cost it means nothing) is the subject of hourly debate at Camp UCEI.

Under pressure to address climate change, energy economics is evolving quickly. Speaking with me before the camp, Severin Borenstein said that purely economic models don’t explain how energy markets work, so economists are starting to use ideas from marketing, psychology, and anthropology. “We spend a lot of time looking at costs, but what people see is more emotions or perceptions. It’s tangible to put solar panels on the roof, but replacing windows (which would save more money and cost less) is a ‘so what?’ More and more, a chunk of our work is trying to figure out incentives and structures to get people to change their behavior.”

This afternoon, Energy Camp is packed to hear a presentation by Alex Farrell, a rising star in the Energy and Resources Group. Formerly an engineer on nuclear submarines, he was drawn to an interdisciplinary study of energy issues because he was “trying to identify the hardest problems around.” Farrell’s work on a low-carbon fuel standard for biofuels is being followed with interest by policymakers in Washington and Europe. Today several regulators have come down from Sacramento to see his presentation.

The fuel standard speaks to the extraordinarily fast pace of regulation in California, and Berkeley’s key role in creating it. In January of this year, the governor’s office asked Farrell and a team of researchers to study how to reduce greenhouse gasses from transportation while encouraging growth of a “green fuels” industry. Four months of frantic work produced part one of a report on what is called the Low-Carbon Fuel Standard, which helped the California Air Resources Board decide to adopt a similar policy as an “early action” strategy on June 21.

The fuel standard falls somewhere in the middle of a long-running debate over whether the interests of the public are best served by market-based programs or regulations. After its success with smog and electrical efficiency, California tends to favor careful regulation. Farrell’s plan combines regulation and a form of credit trading. It includes a way to label every fuel by its carbon content over the fuel’s life cycle. Labels allow regulators and consumers to compare the total carbon emissions of a gallon of gasoline made from tar sands, for example, with a gallon made from a mixture of conventional crude oil and cellulosic ethanol. For an even better carbon profile, a consumer could choose a plug-in hybrid car, because the fuel standard allows regulators to compare different fuels and engines. The standard requires that fuel sold in California contain 10 percent less carbon by 2020, but includes a market mechanism so that firms exceeding their targets can trade credits to those who don’t.

The idea is fairly complex—and it takes Farrell nearly 40 minutes of PowerPoint slides to get it across to the audience. The exuberant economists keep interrupting him. “I can’t help myself,” says Borenstein, “This is not the best approach. The realistic thing to say is that a carbon tax is not politically feasible, so this is a good approach.” Farrell’s military training prepared him well for this kind of onslaught, but the fact is that he brought his idea to UCEI Camp specifically to see it challenged.

Since the California electricity crisis in 2001, economists at the Institute have devoted more time to figuring out how companies might “game” regulations—much the way software companies hire hackers to find security problems in their products. “You always have to figure out how people will make money from policies,” observes Borenstein.

And so, as the afternoon wears on and the chairs become increasingly uncomfortable, UC Davis economics Professor Chris Knittel lays out a case for unintended consequences of the fuel standard: Namely, very high gas prices or increased carbon emissions because oil companies might have a perverse incentive to sell more fuel. But when Knittel ran simulations, he discovered that a more likely outcome would be lackluster carbon reductions at high prices for consumers. Happily, he also saw a potential fix: Set a “cap” on each company’s carbon allowance. Farrell found some of the criticisms flawed because the models couldn’t measure how the standard would spark innovation. He described his role as supplying information in a changing world: “Given what we know, this is what’s possible.”

This kind of rigorous debate in the public interest could be the university’s finest hour. Making policies that work is a delicate dance between good plans and necessary politics, between ideals and execution, between technology and markets. The point of the exercise was not to determine whether the fuel standard was a winner or a loser, but to hash out its potential strengths, weaknesses, and pitfalls. To paraphrase Todd LaPorte, it was a search for “predictable surprises.”

The university’s service to society, and its influence in state government, depend on its ability to stay above the fray. “A pipeline to talk with the government—that’s a great thing—you have the great minds from Berkeley giving suggestions,” says Borenstein. “What makes me nervous is when we become part of the political economy and hesitate to criticize policies. People may not say what they think in public because it would affect their relationship with the governor’s office, the PUC, etc. It’s really important that the UC faculty has independence—we do not want to go in the direction where UC becomes confidential advisors to state government. We need to spread the information more widely.”

Borenstein’s caution underscores the fact that changes wrought by climate change now extend beyond melting glaciers and anxious polar bears to Berkeley itself. As it prepares to take on the greatest challenge of our time, the university will require not only new technologies and industries, but also new institutions, new disciplines, and new ways of communicating its expertise around the world. Although the science and policy of limiting greenhouse gasses have yet to be invented, the university already knows how to build upon its culture of debate and optimism. And as the university’s ideas attract more political and financial backers, Berkeley will have to invest in its own integrity with as much deliberation as any venture capitalist.

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