• Length:
    10 Weeks
  • Effort:
    3–5 hours per week
  • Price:

    FREE
    Add a Verified Certificate for $125 USD

  • Institution
  • Subject:
  • Level:
    Introductory
  • Language:
    English
  • Video Transcript:
    English

Prerequisites

Certificate-earners will need chemistry and physics at the high school level, as well as basic algebra. However, the majority of the course is accessible to anyone.

About this course

Humanity faces an immense challenge: providing abundant energy to everyone without wrecking the planet. If we want a high-energy future while protecting the natural world for our children, we must consider the environmental consequences of energy production and use. But money matters too: energy solutions that ignore economic costs are not realistic, particularly in a world where billions of people currently can’t afford access to basic energy services. How can we proceed?

Energy Within Environmental Constraints won’t give you the answer. Instead, we will teach you how to ask the right questions and estimate the consequences of different choices.

This course is rich in details of real devices and light on theory. You won’t find any electrodynamics here, but you will find enough about modern commercial solar panels to estimate if they would be profitable to install in a given location. We emphasizes costs: the cascade of capital and operating costs from energy extraction all the way through end uses. We also emphasize quantitative comparisons and tradeoffs: how much more expensive is electricity from solar panels than from coal plants, and how much pollution does it prevent? Is solar power as cost-effective an environmental investment as nuclear power or energy efficiency? And how do we include considerations other than cost?

This course is intended for a diverse audience. Whether you are a student, an activist, a policymaker, a business owner, or a concerned citizen, this course will help you start to think carefully about our current energy system and how we can improve its environmental performance.

Photo credits:

Solar Farm CC-BY Michael Mees on flickr
Smokestack CC-BY Patrick on flickr

What you'll learn

  • The basic engineering, environmental science, and economics of our energy system.
  • A working understanding of energy technologies.
  • Environmental impacts of the energy system, focusing on air pollution, climate change, and land use.
  • Techniques for estimating monetary costs and carbon impacts.
Week 1: Introduction
Meet the instructors and learn what the course is all about. Learn where you’re strongest and weakest, and if you have any commonly-held misconceptions.

Week 2: Energy Overview
Forms of energy and common units of measurement. How energy flows through modern and historical economies, including the composition of energy supply, common energy transformations, and which sources are used for which purposes. Prices for energy around the world.

Week 3: Estimating Costs
The quantitative techniques at the heart of the course: levelized cost and cost of mitigation. We’ll apply these techniques to energy systems and also to everyday life.

Week 4: Environmental Impacts
How severe are air pollution, climate change, and land use impact today, and how severe are they likely to be in the future? How do they affect human health, GDP, and the natural world?

Week 5: Fossil Fuels
An abbreviated section focused on the abundance of fossil fuels. Spoiler alert: we won’t run out any time soon.

Week 6: The Electric Grid
A brief overview of modern electric grids including major technologies they use, how remarkably reliable and efficient they are, how they’re planned and regulated, and how they’re starting to change.

Week 7: Solar Power
What solar power technologies dominate today and which have a chance to in the near future. How to estimate the cost of solar power in different regions, how it compares to other options, and the remarkable decline in its cost in the past 5 years. How we can cope with the intermittent nature of the solar resource. How solar power is regulated and subsidized today.

Week 8: Nuclear Power
How nuclear fission works and how it’s harnessed in modern nuclear plants. How much nuclear power costs and how much it’s used, including the stagnation in its use since the 1990’s and the prospects for its revival. Details on the hazards and costs of nuclear waste and power plant accidents. The connection between nuclear power and nuclear weapons.

Week 9: Demand Reduction and Efficiency
Reducing energy demand, by changing behavior or making devices more efficient, can reduce environmental harms – sometimes while saving money! But are there limits to this strategy? Can humanity reduce demand and aim towards a lower-energy future?

Week 10: Conclusion
Wrap-up and review.Wrap-up and review.

Meet your instructors

David Keith
Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics, John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences
Harvard University
Daniel Thorpe
Research Fellow, Energy and Environment
Harvard University

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Learner testimonials

"A very enjoyable course, and the Community TAs made sure that the more challenging parts of it were only challenging, and not frustrating. Thanks!"

"A truly remarkable and world class course. I thank everyone who created this course and the community members and peers who helped with questions and queries. You all rock!"

"I think this has been one of the best courses available on this platform. Truly insightful and illuminating."

Frequently asked questions

Q: How is this course related to the previous version of Energy Within Environmental Constraints?
A: This is a re-run of the original course with minimal alterations.

Q: Are there topics you don't cover in this course?
A: Yes: details on fossil fuels and the electric grid; details on end uses (transportation, buildings, industry); carbon capture and storage; biofuels; and renewables other than solar (wind, hydro…). We hope to cover many of these in a future, expanded version of the course.