For all of the human suffering and economic pain inflicted by the Middle East wars and the skyrocketing petroleum costs around the world, there is a glimmer of hope on America's energy horizon-that is, America's colleges and universities are increasingly joining the race to explore renewable and alternative energy sources.
Remarkably, this new breed of energy colleges and universities has witnessed a virtual renaissance in energy exploration, process, and logistics. We are now seeing U.S. research universities partner with major energy providers to further energy exploration and yield as well as decrease production, refinement, and distribution costs. A scan of the academic energy environment provides an encouraging picture of higher education energy corridors now forming from the northeast to the southwest corners of the nation.
Consider the area around Niagara Falls, N.Y. It was the first region in the United States to harbor community-based energy sources. In the "City of Light," as Buffalo is known, the New York Power Authority has a 50-year successful track record of operating one of the nation's most efficient hydroelectric plants. Now, the power plant is forming a partnership with an ethanol plant and undertaking co-generation initiatives to better meet the needs of the western part of the state.
Nearby, Niagara County Community College is exploring the development of new corporate and public sector utility courses and training programs as part of its long-range strategic plan. Significantly, NCCC's energy-related aspirations are focused on the several critical fields of renewable energy, alternative power, and environmental studies.
A local energy district partnership could recapture waste energy from industrial sites.
For its part, the University at Buffalo is offering courses in environmental studies and alternative energy systems that provide students with new core knowledge and energy-industry-specific competencies for assessing energy efficiency and environmental impact in the workplace.
In response to increased energy costs, Nassau Community College (N.Y.) is exploring the development of mission-complementary partnerships with local museums and hospitals to create an energy district that would recapture waste energy from local industrial sites. Ezra Delaney, vice president of administration and planning, says, "Colleges and universities must develop energy partnerships to gain necessary economies of scale, efficiencies in operations, and nonduplication of energy generation and development."
With gas prices on and off campus hovering between $3 and $4 per gallon in the spring 2006 semester, college and university faculty and students planned summer field trips and academic practica focused on developing renewable energy sources and solutions to bring back to campus in the fall.
By way of example, consider the renewable energy exploration of State University of New York, Canton faculty and field research students who are creating, designing, and building a solar-powered wooden boat to participate in the 2007 Solar Splash sponsored by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Beyond the interest to students, SUNY faculty are applying their practical research skills to out-of-classroom projects like power-plant operations, wind monitoring, and alternative energy sources.
As well, other Northeast colleges are discovering creative means to meet their current energy needs. Just consider Green Mountain College (Vt.). This tuition-dependent private college reportedly gets a significant part of its electricity from companies that run generators powered by methane gas extracted from cow manure. You heard that right: Cow poop is lighting the way for students at this small Vermont institution. "It's a perfect fit," says President John Brennan. "We're an environmental college. We're dedicated to environmental applications and renewable energy."
Higher ed insiders are beginning to perceive a national greening megatrend that is not likely to reverse itself-producing greener campuses and providing a halo effect in transforming today's energy knowledge towns into college towns before our eyes.
Last year as we traveled through the West, we came upon bumper stickers on Cadillac Escalades and Lincoln Navigators that said: Burn a gallon and freeze a Yankee. The difference is that this year we saw Toyota hybrids with a variety of energy conservation messages.
Take for example, Gillette College in northern Wyoming. Known for its abundance of coal and methane energy sources, Gillette area mines produce nearly 30 percent of the coal-powered American energy plants. Significantly, northern Wyoming also stands out for its contribution to the state's unique revenue surplus-a surplus shared for the betterment of Wyoming public higher education.
Over recent months, Gillette has grown under the auspices of Sheridan College and the Northern Wyoming Community College District. At Gillette College, students learn about new fuels and technologies with hands-on career preparation in engineering technology, construction, industrial trades, and other related postsecondary applied learning experiences.
These special circumstances have positioned Gillette for several million dollars of grants and appropriated support. A newly proposed $30 million technical education center will be co-located with the campus of the new Gillette College.
At the high end of the energy research scale, leaders at the University of Wyoming have created mutually profitable partnerships with the private sector energy industry, forming yet another academic energy corridor connection in the Western states.
No serious discussion of America's energy colleges and universities can overlook the special public research university chartered in the state of Colorado-the Colorado School of Mines-with its unique mission in mineral and material science and energy-related engineering, science, and technologies.
In partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the Colorado School of Mines, Colorado State University, and the University of Colorado recently welcomed the governor's signature on enabling legislation for funding a mission-complementary, renewable energy research collaboration. This unique collaboration will explore new energy sources and paths, including solar, wind energy, biofuels, ethanol, biodiesel, geothermal energy, hydrogen fuel cells, and other emergent engineering technologies.
Like Sniff and Scurry inWho Moved My Cheese?, IHEs are finding ingenious ways to anticipate the winds of energy change.
Speaking of gas, the neighboring states of New Mexico and Texas have among the largest known reserves of natural gas and crude oil in the lower 48 states. Venerable energy research institutions like New Mexico Tech and Texas A&M University are now leading the Research Partnership to Secure Energy for America consortium of 84 universities, laboratories, companies, and associations. In collaboration with the Gas Technology Institute, this $50-million-a-year, 10-year effort will seek new ways to scrape the edges of the national oil barrel.
The vast majority of U.S. higher education institutions are imagining new ways to build economically sustainable campuses and greener infrastructures. Driven by spiraling costs, government regulation, tax incentives, and grantsmanship strategies, they are developing a broad variety of strategic alliances with community partners who have a shared interest in finding new low-cost energy solutions and just-in-time energy best practices for building sustainable campuses and communities of the future.
Turning to the Midwest, take a look at Purdue University's Energy Center at Discovery Park in West Lafayette, Ind., a special place where a multidisciplinary academic community of over 75 researchers, scientists, engineers, political scientists, and economists use applied technologies to push the envelope of coal conversion, solar energy, and renewable bioresource options.
Like the entrepreneurial mice Sniff and Scurry in Spencer Johnson's business parable Who Moved My Cheese?, American colleges and universities are finding new and ingenious ways to anticipate the winds of energy change and discover new sources of energy as an institutional legacy for the next generation of students and faculty.
From Maine to New Mexico, and from Maryland to California, major research universities, technical institutes, and even small, private liberal arts colleges are developing ingenious methods of conserving energy. These institutions are joining the contemporary gold rush to find new energy sources both on campus and especially beyond campus.
James Martin is a professor at Mount Ida College (Mass.). James E. Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance. Their book is Presidential Transition in Higher Education: Managing Leadership Change (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).