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Sustainable Energy Management Major at ESF First of Its Kind

New major growing quickly
6/2/2015

By Karen B. Moore

"Sustainability and energy management are the future of modern environmentalism. I'm glad ESF is one of the first to recognize it and create a program that students can pursue so they can make a future in this field," said Victoria McGarril, a member of the first graduating class of the new sustainable energy management (SEM) major.

SEM combines the technical understanding of energy and making energy resources more sustainable and, at the same time, trains students as professional managers of those resources, according to Michael Kelleher, senior research associate.

"It's a fairly new program," Kelleher said. "I don't think I've seen many other programs that have combined management and energy. There are some programs in sustainable and renewable energy across the country, but with a more technical focus than management."

"We're going to be working at that interface between the producers of energy and the consumers of energy, and managing that," said Dr. David Newman, chair of the Department of Forest and Natural Resources Management, which oversees the program.

The program - with its focus on management - is unique. "Most of the energy programs have either been engineering programs or energy policy but not really energy management," said Newman. "And the fact that it's at the undergraduate level rather than the graduate level also makes a difference. In that sense, I think we're ahead of the curve. Given the growth we're having (within the major), I think other programs are going to start up around the country like this, but we haven't found any yet."

"We're not in the production of energy. It's not what our students do. A lot of our people are going into sustainability coordinator positions, and working getting the management tools to work well in a business setting in regard to energy choices and energy options," said Newman.

"I started in environmental science with a focus on renewable energy," said McGarril. "I knew that ultimately I wanted to pursue an education/career that would help save the environment, energy, and money."

ESF boasts a number of on-campus energy projects, such as the photovoltaic arrays on Baker Laboratory and Walters Hall, and the combined-heat-and-power plant in the Gateway Center. One of the reason those projects were put in place was to serve as a living laboratory for students. "This allows students to see them (the projects), to see the data from them, to get experience analyzing them and analyzing the financial decisions we've made in adopting them," said Kelleher. "It's similar to labs in buildings for other majors. The energy projects we have on campus are an integral part of our teaching equipment."

"They look at how the systems work in real life," said Kelleher, "and at the theoretical decisions that were made based on what we knew and what was forecasted and compare readings to it."

The students in the program are "a high-energy group," said Kelleher. Beyond their course work, they also took the initiative to form the Sustainable Energy Club that went on a variety of field trips to different energy facilities.

Said club advisor and faculty member Dr. Timothy Volk, "What they do and want to do is go see other energy systems that they don't see in classes, bringing in outside speakers from the industry to learn about energy issues and build connections for future employment."

"They're really a pretty active crowd," said Volk.

The new major is growing quickly. In May, SEM had 15 graduates - a substantial number for a three-year old major, Newman noted. Some of those graduates are heading into jobs as photovoltaic technicians, shadowing energy advisors before pursuing an advanced degree, and attending Lewis and Clark Law School to specialize in energy law. Currently, there are 100 students enrolled in the program.

As another mark of the program's success, the Departmental Scholar (the student with the highest departmental average and involvement in other activities) for FNRM was Jenny Frank. SEM is one of four majors offered within the department.

"SEM students were saying they want to improve their world and they think this is the major that will allow the world to get better. I just did exit interviews with our first real graduating class and that's what they were saying. They felt that more than any other major at the college, they were truly living it," said Newman.