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Stanford researcher discusses future of sustainability through the Clean Energy Triangle

The global carbon footprint is one of the main causes of global climate change and the biggest carbon contributors, China, the United States, India and Japan, need to begin working toward a more sustainable future. Dan Reicher, a senior research scholar at Stanford University, gave a lecture on Oct. 18 as a part of the fall 2021 Sustainability Talks about the future of sustainable energy, and how the United States in particular can make an impact. 

Reicher believes our solution lies with an interchangeable triangle of technology, finance and policy, a philosophy which has guided his career thus far. This triangle has come to be known as the Reicher triangle, after his research. Technology sits at the top of the triangle, because it’s the most interdisciplinary of the three, where policy and finance are the foundation that scientists need to create such technology. 

Reicher gave one example of how this triangle can be applied to real life environmental sustainability, instead of just theory, in the form of offshore wind farms. Research into offshore wind power began 80 years ago with the construction of the first great wind turbine on a mountain in Vermont. Reicher discussed how technological advancements have allowed wind turbines to exist out in deeper waters, leading to a steadier flow of winds and a reduced effect of the wildlife habitats and recreational views. In 2017, the first floating wind farm was created and advancements in the field will only continue in the future. 

Next, Reicher, who is a self described “river guy,” went on to explain that he thinks the area with the most room for growth in the future is hydropower and pumped storage. Currently there are 21,000 megawatts being produced by pump storage in the United States, despite a capacity to be producing 80,000, as well as the same capacity existing in Canada. Hydropower has many advantages, like reliability, flexibility, low carbon electricity and wind and solar integration, among others. It can also have many cons, like habitat alteration, water quality, large amounts of fish deaths and impacting indigenous rights, which is a big reason why it isn’t being utilized more. 

Reicher believes we can expand U.S. hydroelectric power while still keeping these challenges in mind. He laid out three plans for the future: upgrading existing dams, powering existing dams that are no longer or have never been powered and expanding pump storage in these dams. 

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it,” Reicher said, quoting computer scientist Alan Kay. Through smarter approaches to U.S. hydropower, Reicher believes we can make huge strides toward a more sustainable future. 

The objective that Reicher and his team are striving toward is an agreement between the people in charge of hydroelectric power in the United States and conservationists, to work toward improving the value of hydropower while also making sure to protect rivers from any negative impacts. Their work, while staying based around the Reicher triangle, utilizes the three R’s: rehabilitation of dams, retrofitting dams to increase electricity generation and removing dams that are more detrimental than beneficial. 

The future of sustainability lies within these advancements and relies heavily on our own involvement in sustainable policy moving forward. Reicher believes in a smart, successful future, and he believes that future is hydroelectric power. 

For more information about the fall 2021 Sustainability Talks, and the Senator George J. Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions, visit

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