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UCLA announces ‘Grand Challenge’ for environmental sustainability

By Jeong Park

November 18, 2013 1:08 am

Last week, UCLA announced a new goal – helping the city of Los Angeles switch to solely renewable sources of energy and local water resources by 2050.

The project, called “Thriving in a Hotter Los Angeles,” is the first in a series of six “Grand Challenges” UCLA plans to announce over the next few years as part of the UCLA Grand Challenge initiative.

The challenges are intended to promote research through cooperation among different disciplines, universities, corporations and foundations at the local, state and federal levels, said Mark Gold, associate director of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability and one of the directors of the challenge.

This first initiative aligns with the White House’s Clean Energy Grand Challenge, which was announced in April, said Michelle Popowitz, executive director for the UCLA Grand Challenge initiative. The White House’s challenge aims to makesolar energy as cheap as coal and electronic vehicles as affordable as regular vehicles by 2020.

University officials hope to raise $150 million in funding through various sources such as federal and state funding, Popowitz said.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block said the university chose sustainability as the issue for the first challenge because more than 85 percent of Los Angeles’ water comes from other regions.

At the announcement of the challenge on Friday in Royce Hall, Block said rapid population growth emphasizes the city’s need to look for new ways to achieve sustainability.

“Why are we launching this initiative? The short answer is, because we must,” Block said. “Failure to take constructive action is simply not an option.”

More than 70 faculty members from fields including environmental engineering, geography and English have signed up to be a part of the challenge, 20 of whom are already working on the challenge, Gold said.

Gold said the main difficulty in reaching the goal lies not in the research, but in its implementation.

While conducting the research should not take more than 10 years, implementing the recommendations may take up to 25 years, he said. He said the collaboration between different sectors will make the process of implementation easier.

One of the short-term goals is to make a blueprint by 2019 with recommendations from researchers, said Alex Hall, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences and one of the co-leaders of the challenge.

Diana Huffaker, an electrical engineering professor and one of the participants in the challenge, conducts research on photovoltaic solar cells, which harvest solar energy.

Huffaker said the funding from the challenge will help develop prototypes they make in the lab into a real, working model for public use. She said she wants to develop a “prototype incubator” to help with the commercialization of prototypes.

The challenge aims to mobilize not only researchers and officials, but students as well, Hall said. Gold said he hopes students will play an active role in solving the problem.

The university is developing many ways to get students involved in the challenge, said Gold.

The UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability announced Wednesday a competition for students to submit visual representations of their solutions to climate change. More details about the competition will be available in December.

Gold said the project’s officials also want to create an “energy and water” minor and more internship opportunities in Los Angeles City Hall.

An action research team, a student-run program which focuses on sustainability and makes recommendations to different centers on campus, has already started to promote sustainability inside the campus, said Nurit Katz, chief sustainability officer for UCLA.

The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research will hold an information session on Wednesday to provide further information about the challenge.

The next challenge – the Brain Initiative – will be announced in summer 2014, Popowitz said.

People can suggest ideas for upcoming grand challenges by tweeting with the hashtag #myUCLAgc, Popowitz said.

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