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Students, Professors Demonstrating Virginia's Potential

April 23, 2010 - 10:37am


Peter Denbigh’s real interest is in finding ways to help Americans save energy — especially in terms of the transportation industry — so it’s appropriate that he says “the key is to address the situation effectively so that we don’t just spin our wheels and get nowhere.”

Peter enjoys solving complex problems, including one thing he sees as an urgent situation that is vastly important — energy creation. He earned a degree in integrated science and technology and is now working on his master’s in business administration at James Madison University, based in Harrisonburg, Va., which received $750,000 in initial funding for a clean energy initiative through a Congressionally Directed Project. The university is spearheading an effort to make at least 25 percent of the energy used in the Shenandoah Valley come from renewable sources as early as possible as part of a demonstration of the 25 x ’25 project, where leaders hope to meet the same goal by 2025. Peter sees this as a worthwhile project because he believes Americans cannot sustain their current energy consumption practices.

“I believe in the people on this project as much as I believe in the project itself, and that’s a big part of why I chose to participate,” he says. “You wouldn’t believe the brain power behind the scenes of this initiative.”

JMU became involved with the national 25 x ’25 organization when Professor Ken Newbold and colleagues saw a demonstration project in the western U.S. and decided that the East Coast needed such a project. After seeking support from Senators Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Mark Warner (D-Va.), JMU was fortunate to receive funding to help support its plans to help implement and promote renewable energy in the valley.

As the director of JMU’s Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, Ken, along with his colleagues, coordinates with the U.S. Department of Energy’s Golden Field Office to implement ideas for the demonstration project.

“We’re doing research here at the university, but — most importantly — a lot of this project involves implementation and application, which includes education and training, community awareness programs and hosting events to inform the public, work with local and state agencies and private businesses to achieve the goal of 25 percent renewable energy,” he says. “This includes energy-efficiency practices, looking at renewables across the board from wind to solar to biomass, and taking a broad approach to achieving energy independence.”

Students at JMU, like Peter, are already conducting outreach and training programs for the initiative, as well as helping homeowners use less energy by encouraging area residents to weatherize their homes. Student groups plan to install wind turbines and solar arrays and to incorporate biomass technologies into the university’s current energy mix in upcoming project phases.

“Our university president has adopted a sustainability leadership goal on campus, so we’re working with our facilities management team, faculty and student groups to investigate our energy needs and what we can do as leaders, researchers and innovators to adopt alternative energy solutions on our campus,” Ken says.

The Integrated Science and Technology program at JMU is adding curricula to help address the area’s clean energy projects by aligning senior projects with the initiative. As those students enter various areas of the clean energy workforce and as more projects break ground across Virginia, it will help create local jobs, promote sustainability-driven businesses and generate new development.

“Involving students in research is part of the fabric of our system here at JMU,” Ken says. “The nature of the demonstration project fits perfectly with senior projects, and our engineering program is also sustainability-focused. MBAs looking to do entrepreneurship with developing companies in the green space, which is a growing area in our economy, are interested in learning more, as are political science students who are interested in the public policy aspects of clean energy.”

Peter plans to take the skills he’s learned at JMU to the transportation sector after graduating next year.

“I’m a pretty hardcore car guy, and I have a real passion for just about anything with wheels,” he says. “I will work in programs that deal with transportation efficiency and innovation within that arena.”