Wind turbines
East Coast Wind Farm Wind farm turbines situated on a ridge top in the Appalachian mountains. © Kent Mason

Stories in North Carolina

Carving the Energy Pathway of the Future

When you walk into Brian Murray’s office, the first thing you notice is a striking picture of a West Virginia coal miner—a proud, strong woman with a face daubed with ash. Murray says he keeps the picture there to remind him of the human dimension to his work. “Whatever energy is being produced involves people—not just the people who produce it, but also the people who use it and those who are affected by its impact on the environment.” Murray, who directs Duke University’s Energy Initiative and is one of the Chapter’s newest board members, says that’s something you can’t lose sight of as we work toward a more sustainable energy future.

The Energy Initiative focuses on advancing an accessible, affordable, reliable, and clean energy system. It serves as an interdisciplinary hub reaching across the university through many different departments including the natural, social, and computational sciences, engineering, business, public policy, and law.  “We are connecting the dots and elevating what the university can do on the energy front,” says Murray. “If you just look at one department in one school, you might have some research being done in that area, but if it is not being connected to other parts of the University and if it is not being used outside of the campus walls, it isn’t creating as much impact as it otherwise could.” The Initiative helps Duke train the energy leaders of tomorrow and gives business and government leaders the information they need to make smart energy decisions for the future.  

Murray is an internationally recognized expert on the economics of energy policy, particularly in the arena of mitigating climate change risk. It is an important expertise in today’s world, but it isn’t a field that was in existence when he began his career 25 years ago. “When I started my career, climate change was hardly on the radar at all. There were some scientists talking about it, but it was nowhere near the forefront of environmental research,” he explains.

After receiving his M.S. and Ph.D. in Resource Economics and Policy from Duke, Murray began his career focused on forest and land use. In the late 1990s he started to look at the impact of climate change on forests—how it could affect the economic incentives for land use change. Eventually he began to explore the design and assessment of carbon markets with forest carbon seen as a form of credit that could be bought and sold. “So, there could be an economic incentive for preserving carbon in forests,” says Murray. “As I stayed with it I started working more and more on carbon markets across the entire economy including the role that renewables and other low carbon energy options can play in a climate mitigation portfolio.”

Brian Murray, an economist with the Nicholas Institute, poses on Duke's West Campus.
The Economics of Energy Brian Murray and the Energy Initiative are focused on advancing an accessible, affordable, reliable, and clean energy system. © Duke Photography

Murray says these are exciting times for energy innovation. “We have seen so much change in the electricity sector during the last decade. The pace of change has been dramatic. We are seeing continued improvements in energy efficiency that is flattening the demand for electricity even as our economy grows.”

One of the big issues plaguing renewables is storage. The sun doesn’t shine all the time. The wind doesn’t blow constantly. There must be a way to store the energy produced from those sources. But during a recent interview, Murray referred to emerging optimism on that front. A 300-megawatt storage facility had just been approved in California. “That is as big as a good-sized natural gas plant,” explains Murray. “We need scalable storage solutions. If you look at the last several years, solar panel production cost plummeted 80 percent, but there has not been much progress on storage. Now we are seeing dramatic improvements in the efficiency and cost of storage.”

This fall Murray will teach a class called the “The Transformation of the U.S. Electric Power Sector.” His co-teachers include former Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers (who is also Vice Chair of The Nature Conservancy’s National Board of Directors), Norman Bay, former chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Kate Konschnik, an expert in electricity regulation, who just moved to Duke from Harvard Law School. They will have a lot to talk about—from different perspectives. And Murray is all about including different perspectives and understanding that there really is no one-size fits all solution to a clean energy future.

You might hear people throw out lines such as “the future is solar” or “the future is wind,” but Murray says no single renewable is going to save the day. And there are still legacy forms of power to be included. “I don’t think we should choose an energy technology and say that is the only technology to pursue. You must look at a portfolio approach. We have to move toward more decarbonized sources, but it is a transition path, not a brick wall,” Murray explains. “It is way too simple to say that we know exactly what the energy solution is. As attractive as solar is becoming in certain places, we cannot conclude now that we should move toward a grid that is 100 percent solar in all places. A resilient grid is one that has diversity. A clean grid is one that has a minimal amount of pollution. We should be getting the most resilient and cleanest grid possible.”

Climate change is sometimes seen as a polarizing issue, but Murray says the resulting clean energy innovation can be a winner. We must focus on how we get to that future. He points to work that Troy Campbell, a recent Ph.D. candidate at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business, did on “solution aversion.” The concept is that people who don’t like the solutions to a problem will deny that the problem exists. “So, if you think the climate change solution is going to be big government, top down and restrict freedom, then you will be more likely to reject the science,” Murray explains. “But if you think the solution is going to be innovation and research and development, then you are less likely to challenge the science.” As an economist, Murray believes that a clean energy future can be good for the economy if policies are designed the right way to incentivize new technologies.  

He sees the role of Duke’s Energy Initiative as ensuring that business and government see the big picture and work toward that innovation. “As a university, you have to open minds—train people to carve the energy pathway of the future.”