University Gap Analysis
The success of any university program depends most heavily on the caliber of the students in manages to recruit. Selective and collaborative partnerships with outside programs has the potential for Alaska to gain access to some of the best minds working at other institutions. The wager is that by granting access to the vast resources of Alaska, they will come.
Findings & Recommendations
There are no in-state programs for Alaskan students interested in seeking degrees in renewable/clean energy at the BA, BS, MS, PhD level. There are no minor degrees awarded for undergraduate study of renewable energy, nor are there graduate level certificates in renewable/clean energy awarded in the state. The fact that no renewable energy degrees or certificates are being conferred in Alaska belies the fact that researchers at the Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP), on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus, are engaged in some of the most serious clean energy/microgrid research in the nation.
Student appetite for renewable energy coursework is evident, but a clear barrier to meeting this demand within the University of Alaska system is faculty bandwidth. Renewable Energy Systems Engineering is sporadically on offer through the Mechanical Engineering program at UAA. Department Chair Tom Ravens has expressed some surprise at the consistently strong student interest for what is, elective coursework. UA professors Getu Hailu and Jifeng Peng teach this course, and both professors are currently engaged in renewable energy research projects within Alaska. Professor Rich Wies at UAF last taught Electrical Engineering 693: Renewable and Sustainable Energy Systems in the fall of 2013. This also proved a popular class, but has not been offered in five years because of the pressing demand on faculty to teach core Electrical Engineering courses.
- Without an increase in the capacity of faculty to teach specialized coursework; renewable engineering degree programs at the University of Alaska seem out of reach. It is worth noting, this instructor staffing challenge is another example of a statewide problem: a train-the-trainer shortage; one that hampers the progress of clean energy education within the K-12 and vocational sectors as well.
- Renewable energy degree programs outside of the engineering discipline could be feasible and warrant consideration. A fair proportion of Lower 48 universities with renewable energy programs have established inter- or multidisciplinary degree programs. Interesting examples include MBA, MS and BS programs that draw on economics, public policy, social science departments. Noteworthy examples include programs at: ASU: School of Sustainability; Appalachian State University: Sustainable Technology; The Energy Institute at the University of Michigan; Columbia University: Earth and Environmental Engineering / Sustainable Energy; Syracuse University: Energy and Its Impacts BS; University of California at Berkeley: Energy Institute at Haas.
- The University of Alaska seems uniquely positioned to draw on several departments to perhaps fashion an Energy MS, MA or Minor program that could, for example, include coursework within existing departments such as: Alaska Native Studies and Rural Development, Geography, School of Natural Resources and Development, Rural and Community Development and/or courses within the Engineering Department.
- A University of Alaska partnership with Alaska Pacific University’s Sustainable Energy (BA) Program, could be beneficial to both institutions if the immediate goal is to build a multi-disciplinary degree program. APU’s intention to become a Tribal College and its close affiliation with ANTHC, could provide an avenue where student coursework incorporates ANTHC renewable energy fieldwork/projects.
There is a perception that designating a Minor or Certificate in Renewable Energy is essentially an institutional effort on behalf of the student that “signals” prospective graduate programs, or employers, that the student is interested in the clean energy field. Rick Rocheleau, Director of Hawaii National Energy Institute (HNEI), characterized renewable energy certificate programs, of which HNEI offers, as not particularly essential to a renewable/clean energy career path: “An employer can teach any entry level mechanical or electrical engineer everything she needs to know about renewables in a month.”
ACEP is in a sense already facilitating this sort of “signaling” through efforts such as the Utility Internship Program and the Microgrid Boot Camp, where undergraduate engineering interns are immersed in a week-long exercise to understand the intricacies and demands of micro-grids in rural Alaska.
- Building value and prestige into an ACEP Internship program may achieve exactly the sort of “signaling” value that Director Rocheleau suggests is of value. ACEP could look toward models such as Northeastern University’s Energy Engineering program (MS/PhD). This program is built on a co-op foundation where every third trimester is spent working for industry in the chosen field of study. Again, Alaska’s many microgrids and engineering firms might benefit from such an exchange – one perhaps facilitated by UAF/ACEP.
There is abundant opportunity for motivated students to gain practical and theoretical experience in designing and testing renewable energy systems in Alaska, home to nearly 300 microgrids. These opportunities have not yet been converted to degree pathways. The engineering programs at both the University of Alaska, Fairbanks and Anchorage offer robust curricula, with a few elective opportunities for independent study within the field of renewable energy. Exposure to renewable energy coursework or actual projects underway in the state are obvious drivers of Alaskan engineering students seeking work in the renewable energy field. But in Alaska, a career in renewable energy or further study of renewable systems, is likely to be a student-driven outcome for most graduates from either UAA or UAF’s Engineering programs. ACEP offers an exceptional experience where a handful of BS or MS engineering students find assignments within projects that complement a capstone or thesis project.
- Alaska’s nearly unrivaled renewable energy resources make the state an obvious and enviable proving ground for renewable technologies. This rich renewable landscape and the University of Alaska’s long history as a major contributor of intellectual capital in the field of renewable energy could be leveraged to the benefit of the UA in forming strategic relationships with established graduate and undergraduate renewable energy programs around the nation, and world.