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Energy Education Now: Texas Renewable Energy Education Consortium

We continue our series, Energy Education Now, currently focusing on renewable energy education in Texas.  See the first post in the series, on Houston Community College Northwest’s Energy Institute.

How much does renewable energy really factor into education in Texas, the top crude oil producing state in the U.S.?

Sure, sustainability and environmental studies are becoming regular components of the curricula at colleges and universities across the country. But after talking with Dr. John Galiotos at Houston Community College’s Energy Institute last week, I had to find out: where do sustainability and environmental stewardship stand in a state where petroleum dominates a large part of the economy?To find the answer I spoke with another Texan dedicated to energy education – Sidney Bolfing, Coordinator of Texas’ Renewable Energy Education Consortium.

Sponsored through the Texas State Energy Conservation Office, Texas Renewable Energy Education Consortium is a group of nine Texas colleges focused on outreach and education about renewable energy. Though awareness is one of the main focus of TREEC, the scope of the group extends well beyond simply exposing students to alternative energy sources. TREEC actually works to make studying renewable energy easier.

According to Bolfing, the goal of TREEC is to create “seamless pathways” for energy education – that means introducing middle school and high school students to solar, wind, geothermal and other forms of renewable energy, and leading them into programs at junior colleges, technical colleges and beyond.

TREEC facilitates its programs mainly through collaboration. This means that the consortium creates agreements between secondary schools and colleges and universities to facilitate early college programs for motivated high school students who are interested in renewable energy technology. TREEC also helps create agreements between its partner colleges to allow students to transfer large blocks of credit hours to an institution that specializes in their particular field of energy study.

But what does all of this have to do renewable energy sources and petroleum? Well according to Bolfing, though the focus of TREEC is education, the goal, ultimately,  is to meet the needs of Texas’ workforce.

Texas has long been an energy state with a fossil fuel-focused economy. But Bolfing says that is changing. “You would think ,” he says, “that the big energy companies would be avoiding renewable energy. But the fact is that most of them, like BP and Shell, are actually promoting this in a big way and have huge amounts of money invested in renewable energy.”

Why? In Bolfing’s opinion, its not that we’re going to run out of oil any time soon, but that over time getting access to petroleum will become prohibitively expensive. It’s economics that he says will ultimately force Texas – and the rest of the country – to seriously look at alternative energy sources that didn’t seem feasible in the past. Though the energy itself (i.e. the sun and the wind) is free, there was a time not too long ago where the technology needed to harness wind and solar power was way too expensive to adopt on any kind of large, public scale.  But as these alternative technologies improve, they become cheaper. As petroleum prices rise and solar, wind and other alternative energy sources become cheaper, Bolfing says energy priorities will begin to shift on a large scale.

So what does the future of energy, especially in Texas, hold? “No renewable fuel is a perfect fuel,” says Bolfing. “The sun goes down, there are days when the wind doesn’t blow.”  In his opinion its going to take a broad combination of sources – wind, solar, geothermal, nuclear, fuel cell and more – to adapt to these times of changing energy needs.

Its hard to know how long it will be before renewable energies that create little to no pollution are the norm in America. In the mean time, Bolfing believes that better petroleum science can make our world greener.  “Its happening as we speak,” he says. “We’re learning how to make cleaner fuels and we’re figuring out how to use them more efficiently.” Before we can expect to adopt a large-scale system that relies on high efficiency renewable energies, it seems that energy education must also incorporate the study of traditional energy sources and the methods we might use to make them better.

TREEC’s plan is to keep students ahead of the curve by investigating and developing new technologies like biofuels, power efficiency, energy conservation, combined heat and power, green building design and others. This investigation will lead to the creation of future programs designed to meet the needs of a truly diversified energy workforce.

Rachel Harkai is a freelance writer who studied environmental science and creative writing at the University of Michigan. In addition to writing for local and national publications Rachel currently works as a Writer-in-Residence with InsideOut Literary Arts Project.

Posted on: April 13, 2010, 12:01 am Category: Energy Education Now: Series, Profiles in Sustainability Education, Sustainability and Education Tagged with: , , , , ,

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