Energy Sustainability Expert Joins UT PGE Faculty

July 19, 2021

Arvind P. Ravikumar joins the Hildebrand Department of Petroleum and Geosystems Engineering faculty as research associate professor this fall. Ravikumar brings to UT PGE a multidisciplinary approach to solving one of science and society’s most pressing questions — how global economies can usher in sustainable energy development in the face of climate change. 

Arvind Ravikumar

Through his Sustainable Energy Transition Lab, he focuses on developing technical, social and policy solutions to effective climate action in the global energy sector through a combination of field work, model development and policy design. At UT PGE, he will continue his work on sustainability within the oil and gas industry and the dynamics of global energy transition to a low-carbon economy.

Most recently assistant professor of energy engineering at the Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, Ravikumar is also a Payne Institute for Public Policy fellow at the Colorado School of Mines and an Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy fellow in the School of Advanced and International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. He earned a PhD and MA in Electrical Engineering from Princeton University, where he was an Energy and Climate Scholars fellow at the Princeton Environmental Institute.

Below, Ravikumar shares his thoughts on research, teaching, the challenges facing the oil and gas industry, the importance of work-life balance, and more.

What most excites you about joining UT PGE?
What better place to work on the most consequential transformation of our energy system than the department that pioneered the critical advances in conventional energy sources that power our economy to this day? UT PGE is best positioned to tackle some of our most complex energy and climate challenges. The expertise of PGE faculty in understanding our current energy system will be crucial to finding solutions that are affordable, equitable and sustainable. The department’s long-standing history of collaboration with other institutions, industry and government will be valuable in taking new energy solutions from the lab all the way to deployment. Combine this with the breadth of expertise across UT in the areas of energy and sustainability and you have the critical mass of people and institutional support that makes UT Austin one of the ideal academic hubs for energy and climate innovation.

What kinds of research are you looking forward to doing at UT PGE?
The name of my group, the Sustainable Energy Transition Lab, reflects the kind of work we do. Transitioning from an emissions-intensive to a low-carbon energy system is one of the defining challenges of our time. We know where we are now: Nearly 80% of our current energy supply comes from fossil fuels. We know where we must get to: net-zero emissions by 2050.1 But the pathway — technological, economic and policy — to move from a fossil-fuel-dominated energy system to a net-zero world is unclear. Our research aims to fill this gap. My current focus is on decarbonizing the natural gas supply chain, from field tests of new technological innovations that address methane emissions to modeling the long-term implications of growth in natural gas trade. I am very much looking forward to collaborating with my UT PGE colleagues as well as the broader UT Austin energy community.

What is your teaching philosophy, and what can students expect from your classes?
My guiding principle (and this applies to both teaching and research) is to prepare students for the world they will be entering. Students graduating now are expected to master a whole range of skills that often go far beyond disciplinary expertise — communication, social media, economics, an understanding of policy and the political landscape for climate action. I will incorporate this broad-based skill set in my UT PGE classes, which will focus on sustainability within the oil and gas industry. My classes will help build a knowledge base essential to a low-carbon economy and provide methodological tools to help us make sense of the broader energy system. Students should expect to learn and do new things in my classes. For example, students in my class will learn to write op-eds, participate in public discussions with experts on contemporary policy issues through social media, and interview industry leaders to contextualize what they learn in class. At the end of the day, I want to provide students with the necessary skills to become energy leaders of the future.

How do you see the oil and gas industry adapting to net-zero emissions and the challenge of climate change?
I strongly believe that the future of the oil and gas industry rests on their ability to transform their business models and operations to align with global climate ambition. Climate action and sustainability is not a niche concern of environmentalists anymore. Governments, institutional investors, shareholders, consumers and the public all want to see strong action to reduce carbon emissions. We have seen countries like China and major oil and gas companies like BP and Repsol commit to net-zero targets. This is not by any means an easy task, especially given the inertia and long lifetimes of our energy infrastructure. But it is possible — through smart investments, adoption of new technologies and innovation in existing supply chains. And I strongly believe there is an opportunity for us at UT to collaboratively work with the industry as well as the government to make this energy transition as smooth as possible.

When you're not teaching or in the lab, what do you enjoy doing?
Part of my philosophy, and I really try to extend this to students in my research group, is that everyone must have a hobby outside of work. Work-life balance is not a catchphrase; it’s the foundation to a productive academic experience. In my case, I enjoy backpacking in the Colorado Rockies or the California Sierras — my absolute favorite spots in the country. I am also an amateur mountaineer with several lower-48 summits under my belt. I hope to summit Mount Denali one day. I also believe in the power of the arts to inspire and motivate us — I play the violin; I enjoy the theater; and when I have the time, I work on my culinary skills. Oh, and before I forget, I am also a huge fan of trains and Amtrak. One of my long-standing goals is to travel on all long-distance Amtrak routes at least once.

1. International Energy Agency, “Net Zero by 2050: A Roadmap for the Global Energy Sector,” May 2021.