Energy Fellows: Bright Ideas for Saving Energy in Rhode Island

On the first day of her freshman year, Hannah Morini ’08 examined a list of student clubs and immediately decided to join the Renewable Energy Club. Her father had been a solar panel inspector in the 1980s, and she suspects that probably had something to do with her interest. She soon became vice president of the club, and when she heard that the University was launching an Energy Fellows program, she was first in line to apply.

“I really liked the interdisciplinary focus of the Energy Fellows program,” said Morini, who has appeared in URI television commercials for the last two years standing in front of a wind turbine declaring “my big idea is green energy.”

The Energy Fellows Program is an outgrowth of the University’s Energy Center in the College of the Environment and Life Sciences, which was launched in 2007 to enable researchers and students to work with government agencies, energy providers, and the business community to develop locally based solutions to energy issues. Now in its third year, the fellows program provides students with a wide range of hands-on experiences examining energy issues in the state.

“It’s exciting to see how rewarding the program has been for both our students and the University’s community partners,” said Marion Gold, who directs the Energy Center with Chemistry Professor Brett Lucht. “The students have the opportunity to put their academic training to work on the complex energy challenges we face, and our community partners gain access to stellar young professionals, supported by URI faculty and staff.”

During her year as an Energy Fellow, Morini helped prepare a major report for the Rhode Island Energy Efficiency Resource Management Council on what she called non-utility scale renewable energy opportunities.

“Our job was to identify potential areas, from an economic and natural resource standpoint, where the state should focus its money on renewable energy projects,” Morini explained. “I worked especially on small-scale hydro projects. There hasn’t been much research done on that in Rhode Island. There are many dams in the state, so we proposed generating electricity from structures that are already there, rather than building new dams and disturbing habitat.”

After graduation, Morini went to work for Alteris Renewables, the fastest growing renewable energy company in the Northeast, which designs and installs solar and wind energy systems. She works on the wind power side of the business, representing the company in southern New England by conducting site visits with customers, talking with legislators, planning events, and preparing proposals.

“The Fellows Program has helped prepare me for everything I’ve done afterwards,” she said. “Because of the interdisciplinary focus, it improved my research, my writing, my speaking, and it gave me basic knowledge in so many different areas that are critical once you get a job in the real world. You can go and do anything in this field after having been a fellow.”

The second class of Energy Fellows diversified its activities considerably, with two teams of students working on biofuels and two other teams focused on energy efficiency and conservation initiatives.

Chemistry major Mike Bailey became an Energy Fellow after becoming interested in building a biodiesel lab in the Department of Chemistry and later learning that he could continue that work and receive a stipend as well through the program: “I was trying to find my niche in the Chemistry Department, and I found that the biodiesel lab was something that I could really get into while also doing some meaningful work,” Bailey said.

The URI student spent the spring semester of 2009 building the reactor, which he describes simply as a hot water heater and a cone tank, and using it to convert waste oil from the dining halls into a certified fuel. Last summer the fuel was used to power campus lawn mowers and other equipment operated to maintain campus facilities.

The challenge Bailey has found with the biodiesel process is an unfortunate scheduling anomaly: the greatest demand for biodiesel on campus is during the summer when the dining halls are at a reduced capacity with little waste oil to convert into biodiesel. But that doesn’t mean the project isn’t proceeding.

“We are actively pursuing a proposal as part of the URI climate action plan to purchase biodiesel for use in campus vehicles and giving our waste oil to a company that will use it in the biodiesel process,” explained Bailey, who runs his Volkswagen on biodiesel.

At the same time, he is spending his second year as a Fellow preparing an energy plan for the Washington County Regional Planning Council in southern Rhode Island.

In a somewhat related initiative, Sarah Sylvia ’10 spent last year helping the Naval War College in Newport plot a strategy for saving energy to meet a Department of Defense directive. Working with two other Energy Fellows, she spent last summer analyzing the College’s energy bills, conducting energy audits of its buildings, and researching appropriate renewable energy options that will achieve the goal of reducing energy consumption by 30 percent below 2003 levels by 2015.

The students found a wide variety of inefficiencies in energy use, including areas that had more lighting than necessary, outdoor lights that were on during daylight hours, occupancy sensors that were not working properly, and computers that were never turned off. They proposed the installation of two small-scale wind turbines that will each generate two kilowatts of electricity and the installation of a solar thermal heating system and a small, rooftop photovoltaic system.

The students presented their recommendations last fall to Rear Admiral Phil Wisecup, president of the War College, who enthusiastically endorsed the plan and encouraged the students to continue working with his staff to immediately implement the plan.

“This project wasn’t the same kind of research that I’ve done before,” said Sylvia, the first student in the University’s Blue M.B.A. program, which merges a traditional graduate business degree with an oceanography degree. “I got to see more of the business side of things. Energy is the new hot topic, and to see how that works from the ground up was very interesting.

“The Energy Fellows Program has built a collaborative process, getting people of different ages and backgrounds to work together for multiple interests and have an outcome that is needed and well respected,” Sylvia said. “It’s a group effort, and it’s been a tremendous experience.” When Sylvia graduated in May, she passed along the next step of the implementation process to the next class of Energy Fellows, including Yida Yang, a native of China who is studying electrical engineering and German through URI’s International Engineering Program.

Yang’s first job as an Energy Fellow was to focus on finding energy efficiency opportunities at URI, starting with the offices, classrooms, and laboratories of the College of the Environment and Life Sciences. This summer he is turning his attention to helping local communities save energy in their municipal buildings.

“Saving energy is a really urgent issue today,” Yang said. “It’s also one of my top career choices. I applied to become an Energy Fellow because I wanted to get a strong background on energy issues, and at the same time it has helped me with my communication with all different kinds of people.”

– By Todd McLeish