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The University of Texas at San Antonio Online Magazine

The Energy Man

"It comes down to tomorrow's leaders and making a difference in how they think."

Les Shephard is the director of the Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute and holds the USAA Robert F. McDermott Distinguished Chair in Engineering.

Photo by Matt Wright-Steel

It's Veterans Day. Les Shephard, wearing an American flag tie and eating lunch at his desk, is reflective. He's thinking about Sept. 11, 2001.

For Shephard, director of UTSA's Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute, it's personal. He spent almost 30 years tackling energy issues at Sandia National Laboratories in the name of national security. Even though there was nothing he could have done to prevent the attacks, he feels some responsibility.

"Veterans Day brings me back to 9/11 and what's good for the country," he said. "[At Sandia,] we were dedicated to exceptional service in the national interest. When that happened … you take those things very personally."

Eight months into his new job at UTSA, he's still committed to doing what's best for the country.

"It's still service to the country, but it's a different kind of service," he said. "It comes down to tomorrow's leaders and making a difference in how they think. I want to share with them the things I've learned, both the mistakes and the successes, and hopefully allow them to make a difference in the future."

Lofty goals

Hiring Shephard could be one of the most important moves for UTSA at a time when the university is vying for Tier One status, said President Ricardo Romo.

"Energy research has been one of UTSA's top priorities, and Les brings a vast amount of experience and connections," he said. "This institute is going to be globally recognized because it will tackle energy issues comprehensively."

"If you spend time at the university, you can see [UTSA is] a reflection of tomorrow’s America. The students are diverse, cosmopolitan, engaged and committed."

Les Shephard

Shephard's goal as director of TSERI is a lofty one: to unite representatives from industry, government and academia to explore alternative energy sources. He will investigate the best practices for the energy industry in the region, nation and around the world. The institute will receive $50 million over 10 years from CPS Energy to research alternative energy and is tasked with involving every college at UTSA, as well as other centers and institutes, in doing so.

With a strong emphasis on collaboration, the institute will work within the Energy Research Alliance of San Antonio, a partnership among UTSA, Southwest Research Institute, CPS Energy and San Antonio Water System.

But what Shephard is most excited about is the opportunity to teach the new generation of energy experts, he said. In the spring, he'll teach his first energy-related class, one that he developed. The class is called Sustainable Energy Systems—Realizing America's Energy Future. It will explore national and global energy trends and the difficulties of meeting future energy needs with current practices.

"To me, my job is to ultimately help [students] create their own vision for who they are and what they are going to do as individuals when they leave the university, " Shephard said. "Hopefully, sustainability will be a big part of that, because that in turn will help change the world and create leaders for the global community. That's my desire."

Simply ordinary

Shephard has testified before Congress and led 1,500 employees at Sandia, one of the largest national security labs, for almost three decades. But at heart, he is an "average American," said Christine Olejniczak, business operations manager for the institute.

Before arriving at UTSA, Les Shephard worked for nearly three decades at Sandia National Laboratories researching solar power and other alternative energy options. Photo by Randy Montoya, courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories


"I think we have an inherent responsibility to enable those in other parts of the world to experience what we have and the joy it brings."

Les Shephard

"He's not outside of the mainstream, so when he talks about problems and success, they are things that a lot of people can relate to because he's not living a life that takes place in any kind of extreme or fringe," she said.

Shephard is uncomfortable with the attention he has received since joining UTSA. He insists he's just an ordinary guy who doesn't really like to talk about himself. He earned both a master's degree and doctorate in oceanography from Texas A&M University because of his appreciation for the oceans and the environment. At A&M, the oil industry was a focus, so it was a natural evolution to concentrate on energy issues, he said.

Like many San Antonio residents, Shephard's home isn't solar powered. He drives a 2002 Jeep Wrangler instead of an electric car. His love of cycling, which stems more from its recreational and health benefits than its environmental ones, is evident in the bumper stickers on his Jeep and the vivid yellow Livestrong bracelet he wears. He purchased that bracelet while in France to watch the 2005 Tour de France.

"I'm just a regular old guy who enjoys life and enjoys what I'm doing and enjoys other people," he said.

In fact, it's his love of family and community that Shephard said drives him. Sitting on his desk is a cluster of framed pictures of his wife and high school sweetheart, Darlene, to whom he's been married for nearly 39 years, as well as pictures of his three children and one grandchild. A dry-erase board that hangs in his office holds Shephard's notes and, on the top left side, a message from his daughter written in red reading, "We [heart] Dad."

For Les and Darlene Shephard, an ideal Saturday is outdoors, with evenings spent at a local honky-tonk, drinking a cold beer with friends. They love to brag about their children, all of them educators, and their 5-year-old English sheepdog, Berkeley.

"Family comes first, his faith, his country," Darlene Shephard said of her husband. "He works really hard. He's very committed to whatever he decides to do. And it shows in his track record."

"Commitment is a big part of who I am," Shephard agreed. "It's my commitment to the country, commitment to what I'm providing to this institution and city, commitment to my family and commitment to making the world a better place."

Getting personal

Energy is the key to making the world a better place, Shephard said.

"I think energy and water, sustainability, clearly play a very important role [in the world]," he said. "It's well understood that energy is the key to economic prosperity and with that comes many other benefits—education, technology that serves society and a number of other things that are very important."

Despite a struggling economy, Shephard believes that the U.S. is in an enviable position.

"I think we have an inherent responsibility to enable those in other parts of the world to experience what we have and the joy it brings," he said.

And that's what he sees as his job, to spread knowledge to the rest of the world by educating the next generation of scientists and researchers. Once again becoming reflective, Shephard talks about his life—the decades he's shared with his wife, what he's learned along the way and all the things he has yet to do.

"You come to a place in life where the amount of time you have left versus the time you have spent here are disproportionate," Shephard said. "You start to focus on things you can do with the amount of time you have left so that you can make a difference."

Energy will continue to be a global challenge, he said, one that will outlive him. And so it's with the younger generation that energy solutions lie.

"We're creating citizen leaders," he said. "That fires my jets."

 

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