Sustainable and Fossil Energy: Options and Consequences

Joel Blum,
University of Michigan


This course will combine lectures, field trips and laboratory exercises to explore the science, technology, and policy implications of sustainable and fossil energy options. The course will be taught in Wyoming and Idaho and take advantage of the numerous energy resources of the Rocky Mountain region.

Course Size:

Course Format:
Lecture and lab

Institution Type:
University with graduate programs, including doctoral programs

Course Context:

This is an intermediate level undergraduate course with only one prerequisite course. About 50% of the students enrolled are engineering majors and the rest are mainly majors in business, geology and environmental studies.

Course Content:

This new course will be taught at the University of Michigan's Camp Davis Rocky Mountain Field Station in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The facility is situated near hydroelectric generators, wind farms, solar arrays, a nuclear reactor, gas fields, coal mines, uranium mines, geothermal areas and oil fields. The course will integrate lectures and laboratory exercises with visitations to energy-related facilities in the Rocky Mountain Region. Students will benefit from seeing first-hand the engineering requirements and the environmental impacts of a wide range of types of energy production. Discussions will be held with individuals who work in these facilities and grapple with the complex issues related to energy production.

Students will also gain a deeper understanding of energy through hands-on experiments using alternate energy systems that will be established at Camp Davis, and which will include a combination of solar, wind and hydroelectric generation. We will use Camp Davis as a small experimental "city" where energy and resource production and use can be monitored and manipulated by students. Working in small groups students will design experiments, collect data, and draw conclusions about the effectiveness of various alternate energy production technologies, and also about strategies for reducing energy use in this microcosm.

Course Goals:

Students will obtain an understanding of sustainable and fossil energy options and technologies and the environmental consequences of various energy choices. They will gain hands-on experience with alternate energy production and monitoring, as well as gaining experience investigating energy use and conservation strategies using the Camp Davis field station as a model system.

Course Features:

The course begins with 8 one-hour lectures in the classroom to introduce students to the basic concepts of sustainable and fossil energy. The remainder of the course involves projects, site visits, discussions and informal lectures given at each site.

Course Philosophy:

We are exposed on a daily basis to conflicting views on the options and consequences of various forms of energy production. Should the United States implement a "Manhattan Project" type of effort in alternate energy as discussed in a recent Presidential Debate? Do we have the technology for home owners to economically go off the grid and generate their own power? Does "Clean Coal" live up to its name? Is nuclear power worth the environmental cost? These are just a few of the questions circulating though the popular media, and it is important for students to learn more about these topics to prepare themselves for transitions in energy production that will be shaping their future world.


Evaluation: The course will include two mid-term exams (15 points each), four group projects (10 points each), journal entries (20 points) and participation (10%).


Course Syllabus (Acrobat (PDF) 32kB May7 09)

References and Notes:

Energy, Vaclav Smil,
The Guide to Renewable Energy, Chiras
Energy: Its Use and the Environment, Hinrichs and Kleinbach
Selected Journal Articles