The areas of research and education encompassed by the words "sustainable energy" are intended to integrate scientific and engineering principles that focus on the creation, analysis and improvement of energy technologies to address the growing global need for more environmentally sustainable approaches that include renewable, and lower carbon-emission, energy sources. The intellectual core of this area is broad; it encompasses curricula located in many departments in the College of Engineering, departments such as Biological and Environmental Engineering and Applied Economics and Management in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the departments of Physics and of Chemistry and Chemical Biology in the College of Arts and Sciences, and City and Regional Planning in the College of Art Architecture and Planning.
Research covering a range of specific technologies relevant to sustainable energy has increased significantly at Cornell in the past 10 years and since about 2004 has became more coordinated and collaborative between disciplinary departments. There are several Cornell centers whose primary focus is related to energy such as the Cornell Fuel Cell Institute (now the Energy Materials Center at Cornell), which is led by faculty in the physical sciences, and the biofuels-focused efforts of the Northeast Sun Grant Initiative and the Biofuels Research Laboratory, which is led by Professor Larry Walker and involves faculty members in the Colleges of Agricultural and Life Sciences and Engineering. More recently, the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future (formerly CCSF) has helped create interdisciplinary teams with sustainable energy objectives, within the broader context of its purview (energy, environment and economics).
In 2009, the College of Engineering established the Energy Institute, led by the David Croll Chair of Sustainable Energy Systems, Jefferson Tester. The Energy Institute is dedicated to enabling research and education to understand the global interplay of energy (resource recovery, capture, conversion and transformation, and energy storage and distribution) with earth systems (including water, agriculture and climate). The Energy Institute promotes both research and education that are cognizant of the need for a truly sustainable energy plan to occupy an academic and real-life position that connects energy science and technology with the fields of economics, business, policy, sociology, and political science. Examples include geopolitics of global energy supplies, the role of energy in economic development and poverty alleviation in developing nations, and the long-term impacts of transformative energy changes on the earth's ecosystems.
The research goals of the Energy Institute are to (a) improve fundamental understanding of conventional and unconventional depletable and renewable energy sources and their associated technologies to enable the adoption of cleaner, more sustainable approaches with less environmentally damaging effects; (b) evaluate the scalability of proposed alternative energy technologies that are not fossil-fuel-based to determine whether they can meet national or global objectives, (c) understand the full life cycle impacts, benefits and "costs" of alternative energy choices and their tradeoffs as replacements or substitutes for conventional choices, and (d) to participate in the demonstration and deployment of new energy technologies on campus as (i) a part of Cornell's Climate Action Plan and (ii) a part of other regional, national or international initiatives. The Energy Institute is committed to fostering cross-campus collaborations related to the above goals for the area of sustainable energy systems.