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Is Education the Fuel We Need for a Renewable Future?

We all dream of a renewable-dominant future and are working hard to get there. We also know there is a long road ahead of us, but at a recent American Associate for the Advancement of Science meeting, Sandy MacDonald, director of the NOAA's Earth System Research Laboratory (ESRL), gave some hopeful words of encouragement. According to a three-year ESRL study, solar and wind power could provide 70 percent of the continental U.S. electricity needs by 2030.

The study took 16 billion pieces of weather data, filtered out unlikely sites for power production, and developed a principle for an effective smart grid that would provide extensive renewable transmission to balance production and demand.

The future is bright for renewables, but some may argue that there is a crucial missing link that could be a detriment for industry development: education. To address these concerns, several innovators have created programs to secure our energy future by educating our students – from tykes to undergrads. 

In North Carolina, a group of green energy advocates banded together to develop a weather kiosk that is: “Cool enough to notice. Close enough to check out.” Outfitted with solar panels, a wind turbine and a weather station, Sprout calculates and combines data for wind speed/direction, solar elevation/irradiance, voltage, watts/m2 available and other statistics. Users can retrieve this data on Sprout’s interactive touch screen or online. If a location already has a solar or wind project, Sprout can calculate what it produces on any given day. “The solar panels on your roof or the wind energy you buy off-site can suddenly be made visible by Sprout’s engaging presence at your location,” according to its website. Sprout offers integrated lesson plans for all levels that allow students to use renewables in math, science and more.

While Sprout educates students about what renewables can produce, KidWind excels in how systems are built. Established in 2002, KidWind offers a full wind energy curriculum, and even includes lessons about solar energy, generators, and energy efficiency. But in addition to this renewable-packed program, KidWind offers hands-on “challenges” throughout the U.S.

Students spend three months building a wind turbines, which are then entered into local competitions, which are promoted on the KidWind website. Each is judged on power performance, construction and the student’s knowledge of wind energy topics. The challenge not only teaches students how to build a turbine, but it also teaches them about where wind comes from, energy transfer, the difference between power and energy, and much more. 

Sprout and KidWind are just two of the many renewable education offerings out there, but they both tout compliance with the STEM (Savings Through Energy Management) program. This nationally recognized workshop is generally conducted in five lessons, one per week, and educates students about energy costs and career skills. 

The program can have any focus, for example, the Wyoming NASA Space Grant Consortium in conjunction with several affiliates hosted wind-focused summer programs about energy and climate science. Grant director Dr. Paul Johnson explained in a statement, "This experience was, and continues to be, an investment in the state's next-generation scientifically literate workforce that adds value to as well as a sense of understanding about where rural communities fit into the nation's landscape."  

Even though many experts believe that educational initiatives like the STEM program are the key to a successful renewable future, we need to step up our initiatives. According to Forbes contributor James Marshall Crotty in an interview with Pace Global Energy Services CEO Tim Sutherland, manufacturing CEOs claim that there aren’t enough students with STEM skills to fill the U.S. need for technologically savvy workers. To which Sutherland responded:

Our educational system is failing to stimulate interest and to excite our children to learn more about the sciences, engineering and quantitative skills.  If we continue down this path, our ability to compete in global energy markets and other markets will be materially compromised.  Regardless of the energy modality, whether traditional fuels or renewable, America must do more to be competitive. 

Stephen Chu echoes this sentiment when he speaks about American manufacturing, stating again and again the need for the U.S. to increase research and development funding so as to develop innovative answers to the world’s energy challenges. Sutherland again: “I have no problem with 70% of Americans going to college, as long as the technical needs of our energy sector are being filled.”

Image: hxdbzxy via Shutterstock

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