Melissa Ball
Melissa Ball Aaron Nathans

In Part Four of #100Years100Facts, we look at contributions to the interdisciplinary field environmental studies at Princeton Engineering, and its origins in the early 1970s to today’s efforts to combat climate change.


Who was the founding director of Princeton’s Center for Environmental Studies?

Amid a growing recognition of challenges facing Planet Earth, including the 1970 Clean Air Act and that year’s Earth Day, a Princeton physics professor set up shop in the EQuad the next year to bring faculty from across campus together to tackle environmental problems. He became the first director of the multidisciplinary Center for Environmental Studies, which later added “Energy” to its name, and was the forerunner of even bigger Princeton centers active today. What was that professor’s name?

It was Princeton Physics Professor George T. Reynolds. He was known best for his work in cosmic rays and high energy particle physics and biophysics. He long loved the sea and had taken an interest in air pollution. Along with mechanical and aerospace engineering professor Irvin Glassman, physics professor Marvin Goldberger and Engineering Dean Robert Jahn, Reynolds convinced President Robert Goheen to create an unusual entity at Princeton to focus attention on policy prescriptions for the newly identified environmental crisis. The Center for Environmental Studies, housed in the EQuad, would be an independent, interdisciplinary research unit. Reynolds became the center’s first director, from 1971 to 1973, and his research team picked unusual research topics that crossed department lines, such as indoor air quality, energy conservation in buildings, and the values involved in environmental decision making. The center, soon renamed the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, continued for another 30 years. Its successor institutions, including the Andlinger Center for Energy and Environment, continue Princeton’s leading role in tackling the toughest environmental questions, including — and especially — the climate crisis.


“If energy becomes very expensive, there will be a tremendous disparity among income groups in how much energy they can afford.” – Margaret Fels, 1976.

Amid the nascent environmental movement in the early 1970s, the Center for Environmental Studies — later renamed the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies – created a place for analyzing public policy related to energy and the environment. It was a rare interdisciplinary center at the time that brought together expertise from across campus. Inside the center was born the Energy Systems Analysis Group, which over the years has identified strategies and policies to create long-term solutions for energy-related societal problems, including urban air pollution, energy-import dependence, the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation, and poverty in developing countries. The center’s team of investigators included such well-known names as Frank von Hippel, Harold Feiveson and Robert Williams, to name a few. It also featured the work of one of the first female engineers to work at Princeton, Margaret Fels. Amid the gasoline rationing of that era, she studied how to reduce energy costs and fuel use in transportation. She also was an early leader in defining ways to evaluate energy efficiency in buildings and manufacturing. Fels was briefly an assistant professor in the then-Department of Civil Engineering and Operations Research, becoming the third woman to join the faculty at Princeton Engineering. She returned to the center’s research staff, where she served for 18 more years. The Energy Systems Analysis Group’s work continues today within Princeton’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment, where it moved in 2015. Its work was featured worldwide earlier this year in an important new report suggesting how to get to net-zero emissions by 2050.


Who ran the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies for 20 years?

Upon the founding of the Center for Environmental Studies in 1971, Princeton University President Robert Goheen and Provost William Bowen sought to address the environment through interdisciplinary education. They recruited a young scholar from Yale University that year who would go on to run the center for 20 years starting in 1978, and who is one of the most influential environmental researchers in the university’s history. Who is this professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering professor, emeritus?

It was Robert Socolow, who had been a young assistant professor at Yale University with a passion for environmental issues, and who had just published the book “Patient Earth.” He joined the faculty of the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering that year, becoming a full professor in 1977. The next year, he took on the leadership of the center, which in 1974 had been renamed the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies. For 20 years, he led the group in producing influential research on energy efficiency and air quality in buildings, energy in developing countries, proliferation-resistant nuclear energy, and other topics. He later turned his focus to combating climate change, and has been writing influential papers, of which the best known, with Steve Pacala, introduced the “stabilization wedge,” a framework for understanding the carbon emission cuts needed to avoid dramatic climate change, and the tools available to do so. Today, much of the work started by the center is carried on by the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment and the High Meadows Environmental Institute.


“The Andlinger Center has many disciplines that focus on climate change under one roof. This proximity allows us to learn from each other and create innovative solutions.” – Melissa Ball.

Melissa Ball works in Lynn Loo’s Organic and Polymer Electronics Laboratory at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. At the lab, she is studying “smart windows” that use organic molecules as the UV-absorber material in transparent solar cells, effectively harvesting the ultraviolet portion of the solar spectrum for power and leaving the visible portion for lighting and the infrared portion for heating. And she also works on perovskite solar cells, a highly efficient form of solar technology with strong commercial potential. The Andlinger Center is a multidisciplinary research and education center, whose mission is to develop technologies and solutions to secure our energy and environmental future. A top goal of the center is to translate fundamental knowledge into practical solutions that enable sustainable energy production and climate protection by changing the way humans use energy. “For someone like me who is very interested in the impact of climate change from a science point of view, from an economics point of view, it’s really fun to be in a place there are so many seminars, so many lectures. You can have a broad understanding of what climate change is and try to solve it. If you worked in just one of those disciplines, you might not know what your colleagues are doing across campus. The Andlinger Center brings everyone into one house and that’s really cool.”


By what year do Princeton researchers expect electric vehicles to cost the same as traditional vehicles?

In an effort to combat the climate crisis, there have been a growing number of pledges from major corporations, municipalities, states, and national governments to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 or sooner. In a widely cited report released late last year, researchers at Princeton’s Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment created a blueprint for achieving these pledges, in granular detail. The Net-Zero America report cites the transportation industry as a major contributor to air pollution, and a major opportunity to achieve carbon reduction by electrifying the nation’s fleet of vehicles. The report points out, of course, that electric vehicles currently cost more than traditional internal-combustion-engine models. Electric vehicle costs have been falling in recent years due to battery cost reductions. By what year does the report project electric vehicles will fall to the same price as traditional vehicles?

It’s 2030. The Net-Zero America report, released in December and widely reported upon by major media outlets, is an all-encompassing look at the steps needed to slow the progression of climate change. The report notes that today, electric cars, vans and pickup trucks make up just 2 percent of the nation’s fleet of light-duty vehicles. Electric vehicles, the report notes, are more expensive than traditional vehicles, but with battery costs falling, they are expected to cost the same by 2030. If policymakers follow the suggestions in the report, 17 percent of light duty vehicles are expected to be electric by 2030, and 96 percent would be electric by 2050. Transportation is just a small part of this report, which finds overall that even the most expensive infrastructure upgrades needed to curb carbon emissions would incur only marginal costs beyond existing projections. The full report can be found at Pictured is Jesse Jenkins, one of the report’s co-authors. He is an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.


“We need to use every tool in our toolbox, while simultaneously designing new ones to ensure an equitable and environmentally sustainable future for all.” – Yueh-Lin (Lynn) Loo

A quote from Albert Einstein that is engraved in the entryway of the Andlinger Center continues to ring true: ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that caused them.’ We need to use every tool in our toolbox, while simultaneously designing new ones to ensure an equitable and environmentally sustainable future for all. We also need partners. Especially during these unique and trying times, we are thankful to our community that continues to value the pursuit of new knowledge, scientific thought and process, innovation, and engagement.” – Yueh-Lin (Lynn) Loo, who recently stepped down as director of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment. Her research group studies organic and polymer electronics, including solar cells and energy-efficient smart windows, as well as hybrid organic-inorganic perovskites. The center develops solutions to secure our energy and environmental future. The interdisciplinary center was founded in July 2008 through a $100 million gift from international business leader Gerhard R. Andlinger ’52 and began its operations in the fall of 2010. A stunning complex of research, teaching, and garden spaces to house the center was completed in 2016.