Focus on Sustainability: Gary Dirks, GIOS

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Dr. Gary Dirks is the new director of Arizona State University’s Global Institute of Sustainability. Dirks will talk about his new role, his vision for GIOS, and sustainability issues.

Ted Simons: Gary Dirks was recently named Director of Arizona State University's Global Institute of Sustainability. Joining me to talk about his new role and his thoughts on sustainability issues is Dr. Gary Dirks. Good to see you again. Thanks for joining us.

Dr. Gary Dirks: Pleasure to be here.

Ted Simons: what is the global institute of sustainability?

Dr. Gary Dirks: It's more or less exactly what it says. We're an institute that does research looking into the big issues that relate to how we create the future for humanity that is sustainable over multiple generations, so the bulk of what we do in the institute is to do research that looks at everything from water to energy to climate, things of that nature.

Ted Simons: next question was going to be to define sustainability. People hear it, it's everything from going solar to reusing water. What do you see as sustainability?

Dr. Gary Dirks: This is a good question. It comes up a lot. There are sort of two ends of the spectrum that I like to use. One is a fairly formal definition that came out of a report called the brundtland report from a couple decades ago. Basically that is supplying the needs of the current generation without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs. A little academic. There's a more earthy one that one of our advisors on the board likes to use, treating the planet like we intend to stay here.

Ted Simons: I like that one.

Dr. Gary Dirks: it works a lot better in most instances.

Ted Simons: It certainly makes sense. Now, at GIOS, what is your vision? What do you see the institute and the school doing?

Dr. Gary Dirks: Yes. Well, to begin with the institute and school are not exactly the same thing. The school as it implies focuses much more on the teaching side whereas the institute focuses more on research. But we do manage the two together as a strategic entity. In the case of the institute, what we really want to see is the institute providing new knowledge, getting that knowledge out to those decision makers who can make use of it whether in government or industry, other academic institutions, and really driving forward a set of concepts on how we can be more sustainable, how can we use energy more efficiently, find new sources of energy, how we can use water more efficiently. In the case of the school, we want to bring that knowledge that's being created in the research back to the school and teach our students skills on how to consider sustainability problems as well as how to get them engaged in doing actual solutions.

Ted Simons: give me an example of something GIOS would be involved in in terms of advising business or an industry or a government on how to work in a more sustainable way.

Dr. Gary Dirks: Sure. There's a great example of a project that we're working on right now called Energize Phoenix. This is a joint project with the City of Phoenix. We got a Department of Energy grant to do that. In the light-rail corridor we're looking at everything from how to make housing more energy efficient, how to use electricity more effectively, ideas on what to do about the greenhouse effect associated with the urban heat Island. All types of advice around how to do those sorts of things.

Ted Simons: you have experience as a business executive. I want you to talk a little bit about that and how that plays into what you would like to see out of GIOS.

Dr. Gary Dirks: As a business executive, there were a number of things and not all of them environmental that we used to look at. For example, education in developing countries is extremely important and how you go about developing a work force that is sensitive to environmental issues that are sensitive to the needs of the local communities where important things in business need to engage in. We would support institutions, academic institutions, NGOs to develop training programs, to look at the way that commerce is developed, creating jobs, all of that was part of what we would look at from a business standpoint. As we work with our business partners very much the same, so some of our business partners are interested in solutions having to do with work force development, particularly work force development related to sustainability issues. So better, more efficient use of raw materials, sustainable communities and how you develop work forces that are able to provide you with the kind of talent you need.

Ted Simons: Now you're directing GIOS, you were directing something called like works. Are you still with light works and what is it?

Dr. Gary Dirks: I'm still with light works. I'm the director. Light works is an initiative, not a school, not a center, not a college. It's a university-wide initiative. The idea behind light works is that at Arizona State University we do a lot of research related to light. If we were able to bring that research together from all the different departments, all across the university, we ought to be able to do bigger projects and bigger programs. We ought to be able to apply that insight to more complex problems. So that's what we have done. We focus on things like photovoltaic electrical devices. We focus on artificial photosynthesis, making fuels without plants from carbon dioxide, water and sunlight. We focus on using plants specifically algae and bacteria to make chemicals, fuels, useful products. We also do energy efficiency. We look specifically at the state of Arizona. We got tremendous solar resources in Arizona. Education. Policy. All of this within light works an all of it intended to try to go for bigger, more complex problems.

Ted Simons: This may be off topic but do you see Arizona doing everything it can to utilize solar? It just seems as though we take three steps forward and move a couple steps back. How do you see what the state is doing regarding solar energy?

Dr. Gary Dirks: I think there is a certain amount of a few steps forward and a step back. On the whole not bad. If you look at the statistics, we're now number two in the country in the rate at which we're putting in new solar photovoltaic capacity. Only California is ahead of us in terms of the rate they are going forward. We are doing a lot of work both in our utilities and in our universities on how to more effectively use solar energy, particularly with respect to micro grids and stabilizing the grid. Could we do more? Yes, absolutely we could do more, but it would require us to look at the way that we manage the utilities and how we make it a win-win for both the solar industry and for the future of the utilities.

Ted Simons: are you concerned that other states, other countries are moving faster than us?

Dr. Gary Dirks: Well, California is certainly moving faster than we are. I don't think that what we should be worried so much about is who is moving fastest. I think what we should be looking at is who is on a path that is stable and they are going to be able to sustain. Who is taking those steps that will integrate both the use of solar and the production of solar devices most effectively. In other words, we want the jobs. We don't simply want to deploy solar. We would also like to have the jobs. I think in that regard there's more we could do on the job creation side. But on the deployment side, as long as we don't lose our way, as long as we keep plowing ahead we're not on a bad path.

Ted Simons: The U.S. as well?

Dr. Gary Dirks: The U.S. in terms of production, no. The Chinese and Asians in general have done a lot more than we have. Having said that, it's also to note that they are going through a wave of bankruptcies in China in particular, and this comes back to it's not so much who is going fastest, who is on a path that is sustainable.

Ted Simons: very good. Good to have you here. Congratulations and good luck.

Dr. Gary Dirks: always a pleasure. Thank you.

Dr. Gary Dirks:Director of Global Institute of Sustainability, Arizona State University;

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