Mort Webster
Monday, July 14, 2014

Sometimes it takes an external perspective to remind us of our strengths. That’s what happened when I sat down to talk to Mort Webster, associate professor of Energy and Mineral Engineering, who recently came to Penn State from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He couldn’t say enough good things about Penn State’s diverse expertise and strong support for interdisciplinary research.

“[Penn State] is one of the few places I’ve found anywhere in the world that has expertise across so many areas,” Webster said. Because the nature of Webster’s research demands interdisciplinary collaboration, he was attracted to Penn State’s broad group of faculty experts in wide-ranging fields. That broad expertise and collaborative environment is the only way to solve energy challenges such as climate change Webster said. Prior to making the move to Penn State, Webster was already working closely with faculty from Geosciences, Agricultural Economics, Meteorology, Industrial Engineering, and Energy and Mineral Engineering.

Webster’s research focuses on uncertainty in energy and environmental systems especially in relation to electric power systems. He specializes in risk analysis and uncertainly analysis to inform decision-making under uncertain conditions. Uncertain conditions can include future fluctuations in fuel prices, new technologies or changes in technology costs, new regulations or policy, and changes in environment or climate. While it’s hard to predict what will happen with any of these factors in 30 or 40, these factors have an immediate impact on decisions that have to be made today. This research can be used to inform various stakeholders, including policy makers, research funding agencies, and industry.

Take, for example, the decision to build a new power plant. A plant built today would be online for at least the next 30 years, but there is no way of knowing what energy will look like 30 years from now. What new technologies will have come to the table? What will climate change look like? What type of power plant should we be building today that will still makes sense 30 years from now?

The overarching question is, “What should the technology mix look like?” Should we be investing in coal, natural gas, solar, wind, nuclear, or something else? The quick answer is that we need a very broad portfolio of research and technologies. Regulatory agencies are proposing regulations that would decide the future mix of energy resources by eliminating funding for certain technologies. Webster said that removing specific resources from the mix is not the answer.

“Nothing is off the table,” Webster said. “There are so many directions our energy future could take.”

Prior to joining Penn State, Webster was assistant and associate professor of engineering systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2006-2013) and assistant professor of public policy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2001-2006). He received a doctorate in engineering systems and a master’s degree in technology and policy from MIT, and a bachelor’s degree in computer science and engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. He has published numerous peer-reviewed articles in energy and environmental science, engineering, economics, and policy, and has served on several national and international panels, including the U.S. Climate Change Science Program.