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Research & Innovation Magazine

Teaching by Example

Former Shell President John Hofmeister Shows the Next Generation of Energy Leaders How It’s Done

By Jeannie Kever

John Hofmeister, founder and CEO of Citizens for Affordable Energy and former President of Shell Oil Company, is also a member of the UH Energy Advisory Board.

John Hofmeister is trying to change the world, one class at a time.

“We need change agents for the future,” he said. “This is a way of creating change agents, who in their adult lives will agitate and change things for the better.”

Hofmeister knows about change — oil’s boom-and-bust cycles were a fact of life during his career in the energy industry, which includes serving several years as president of Shell Oil Co. Now, as the founder of a national energy advocacy group, he is pushing for more fundamental change.

What should U.S. energy policy look like during the next 50 years? Students in his Case Studies in Energy & Sustainability research seminar at the University of Houston spent the spring working on a solution.

More renewables, but also hydrocarbons, they said. Coal will still be needed.

“Scaling down coal 100 percent, it’s impossible,” said Semih Yusuf, a senior political science major.

And moving to a future with available, affordable and sustainable energy will be complicated.

“It’s easy to say it can be done,” said senior Juan Trujillo, who also majored in political science. “We have the technology. But as far as government regulations, the political framework, we don’t have that.”

Hofmeister’s class is about provoking thought, as well as future action.

“This opened the gates for us,” said Debjani Chakravarty, a junior chemical engineering student. “I’m not thinking only about engineering, but about policy, politics. It’s not something an engineer would generally get to do.”

Hofmeister pledged that any project earning an “A” will be posted on the website of Citizens for Affordable Energy, the advocacy group he founded to promote energy security and infrastructure, along with a sustainable energy supply.

“It’s real-world,” Chakravarty said of the project, the culmination of endless nights at the library. “We can make a difference.”

She and her classmates credit Hofmeister for that. “He’s been an inspiration,” she said.

It’s not that Hofmeister needed another job. In addition to serving as CEO for Citizens for Affordable Energy, he is a member of the Energy Security Council, the Energy Department’s Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Technical Advisory Committee and the UH Energy Advisory Board.

He is the author of the 2010 book “Why We Hate the Oil Companies: Straight Talk from an Energy Insider.” And now he is a teacher, also leading a similar class at Arizona State University.

“In Arizona, they’re out to get rid of fossil fuel,” he said.

Not so in Houston, where many students have friends or family in the industry. But their plans still drew tough questions at a presentation in early May before an audience that included industry experts and former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia.

Lane Sloan, a former Shell executive, reminded them that U.S. energy policy can’t happen in a vacuum. “It’s a global world,” he said. “If things change here, how would it affect competition?”

One audience member questioned one group’s assumption that nuclear energy can produce one-third of all electricity by 2065. Another asked why a group emphasizing renewable energy hadn’t talked about energy storage.

Questions noted, the students left to refine their proposals one last time.

“You’re not really following a book,” Chakravarty said of the research involved. “We spent most of our time arguing, getting all of the kinks out of our plan.

“We are driven to think of big ideas.”

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