LSU’s new energy institute faces global challenges, local skepticism

In Louisiana, the energy transition away from high-intensity carbon fuels is focused on things such as creating lower-carbon hydrogen and capturing climate-warming carbon from industry and directly from the air.

LSU’s new energy institute faces global challenges, local skepticism
LSU’s Memorial Tower on Monday, March 20, 2023, on Tower Drive in Baton Rouge. (Matthew Perschall / Louisiana Illuminator)

Published in the Louisiana Illuminator

In Louisiana, the energy transition away from high-intensity carbon fuels is focused on things such as creating lower-carbon hydrogen and capturing climate-warming carbon from industry and directly from the air.

But Brad Ives, the incoming director of Louisiana State University’s nascent Institute for Energy Innovation, wants to expand the possibilities to include energy sources such as solar, geothermal and technologies that he says might not even have names yet.

“What the globe is facing right now is so difficult and profound, we are going to need to pursue everything,” Ives told Floodlight. “We are going to go broad, as deep as we can and we are going to go super fast. We have no choice.”

The institute was created last year with a $25 million grant to LSU from Shell last year and is intended to bring together the university’s efforts on energy policy, research, engineering and economics. The charge for the institute was to focus on carbon capture, hydrogen, low-carbon fuels, resiliency, community engagement and environmental justice. Ives will be the institute’s first full-fledged director. Since the institute was created, it has been led by interim-director, Rhoman Hardy, a former vice president for Shell Gulf Coast Chemicals.  

Ives has the pedigree for such a task. He’s been on the business and finance sides of renewable power deals, negotiated the deal for the first wind farm in North Carolina and most recently held a leadership role at Catawba College in North Carolina where he helped the college become carbon neutral.

Environmental advocates in Louisiana, though, are skeptical over just how broad the institute’s approach will be.

“It is clear based on the board of the new Institute for Energy Innovation that it is focused squarely on innovations using fossil fuels,” said Logan Atkinson Burke of the Alliance for Affordable Energy, an energy consumer advocacy group. Of the institute’s seven board members, two represent LSU and five represent the oil and petrochemical industry.

Anne Rolfes, of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, agreed. “The transition is not genuine. It’s a public relations effort to assure that the Louisiana economy remains dedicated to being a cheap dumping ground for the oil industry.”

The institute’s first work product, a white paper entitled “What is Environmental Justice?” is expected to be published in November. None of the environmental justice organizations in the state — including The Descendants Project, Taproot Earth, HousingNola, the Bucket Brigade or the Alliance for Affordable Energy, reached for this story — was contacted regarding the white paper.

 Ives understands the skepticism and says some of his environmentalist friends are “horrified I’d go to work with the oil and gas industry. But it is still here and it’s still going to be around. It has a valuable role to play going forward.”

 When he arrives on campus Monday, Ives says he will launch a 120-day listening tour to learn what the state needs. He knows it’s not just environmentalists who are skeptical but residents from throughout the state who might not even want to discuss climate change or an energy transition.

 He says he will speak the language of jobs and economic development. 

“I don’t necessarily have to talk about embedded carbon in Minden, Louisiana. I can go up there and talk about the timber industry and coming up with a new industry that can compete with steel,” he said of the possibility of the state providing mass timber beams to supply a growing desire to build larger buildings with wood.

While LSU has worked with the oil and gas industry for decades, the new institute will address “new opportunities related to energy production, consumption and resilience as we transition to more diverse, cleaner and sustainable energy,” said Robert Twilley, LSU’s vice president of research and economic development, and who will oversee the institute. “Our geography, geology, energy industry investments and existing energy infrastructure all position LSU and Louisiana to lead the nation and the world in energy transition.”

Shell echoed Twilley.

“Louisiana has a long, proud history of providing the energy that powers society,” said Lee Stockwell, general manager of Shell’s carbon capture and storage ventures. “Brad’s leadership, enthusiasm and dedication will ensure the LSU Institute for Energy Innovation continues to help grow and diversify Louisiana’s energy future, and we are excited to partner with him on that journey.”

The institute is separate from the university’s Center for Energy Studies, which focuses on the economic impact of the state’s fossil fuel industry. ExxonMobil has since announced a $2 million donation to the institute, and the university is talking with eight other companies, according to an August update from the institute.

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Pam is an environment, energy and climate reporter and editor. A long-time New Orleans resident, Pam was part of the Times-Picayune team that published after Hurricane Katrina.

Pam Radtke/Floodlight