adds new courses with $100k CDOT grant
It is more crucial than ever to decarbonize our energy systems. Existing renewable energy technology represents our best hope, but it must be integrated into both old and new infrastructure. This challenge requires the coordinated efforts of industry, government, and academic institutions, according to researchers from the Colorado State University Energy Institute.
CSU has partnered with the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory to change energy systems and to prepare students to take on the challenges ahead. CSU systems engineering and this educational partnership received a $100,000 grant from the Colorado Department of Transportation. The grant will enable the CSU Department of Systems Engineering to offer more classes in electric vehicle engineering, manufacturing, and high voltage safety. Other offered courses focus on the complexity of the U.S. power infrastructure from the systems thinking perspective, which researchers say is key to finding opportunities for change.
“We work with NREL and our partners to implement solutions to the crisis of climate change,” said Tom Bradley, Department Head, CSU Systems Engineering. “This partnership is designed to rapidly bring students up-to-speed through direct experience with projects related to NREL’s area of operation.”
NREL advances the science and engineering of energy efficiency, sustainable transportation, and renewable power technologies. NREL is headquartered about an hour south of the main CSU campus.
Andy Walker, an NREL senior research fellow, said partnering with CSU is good for Colorado and the nation.
“Having direct access to institutions of higher learning like CSU provides the kind of coordination we need to develop the workforce, build technologies, and progress towards our climate goals,” Walker, a CSU alumnus, said. “Colorado attracts and keeps some of the best minds in renewable energy the country has to offer.”
Addressing climate change requires the system integration of existing technology
Fletcher Ouren, a first-year master’s student in systems engineering, recently landed a summer internship with NREL. Ouren and his co-authors published a paper that identified the primary considerations fleet operators have when purchasing heavy trucks. He said decarbonizing the trucking industry means better adjusting to buyer’s interests and concerns.
“I want to directly affect the most important issue the world faces today and that’s climate change,” Ouren said. “I originally thought it was a technology issue, but now I know it’s much more than that; it’s about integrating changes into existing systems.”
While there are many renewable and sustainable energy technologies available, integrating them into existing power systems remains a challenge, according to Tim Coburn, CSU professor of systems engineering.
Coburn, who worked at NREL in the 1990s and currently is appointed to the NREL Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis, taught the first course in the new joint program in Fall 2022. This course was a technical overview of the energy sector, covering topics in economics, human factors and distribution.
“NREL representatives told us many of those applying to work there didn’t have a full understanding of the breadth of the changes happening in the energy sector; many were too focused on their little part of the world of renewable energy,” he said. “That’s why we wanted to leave our students with a much broader perspective, so they are better candidates for jobs at NREL and in Colorado’s energy sector.”
Alex Lynch, another masters student in systems engineering, started his research as a student ambassador at the Energy Institute while an undergraduate. He first studied how to quantify black carbon particulates in the air, then hydrogen-based power storage technology. He said he later realized these technologies didn’t matter if they weren’t being used. That’s why his interests turned to integrating existing technologies into energy systems, and why he applied to the CSU-NREL program.
Lynch said the first course he took with Coburn was eye-opening because of how in-depth each class was. Coburn had guest speakers lecture most of his classes, each an expert in a different aspect of the energy sector.
“It was great to dive deep on each topic instead of learning everything from one person,” Lynch said. “These were the people who really knew because it was their direct responsibility as part of their daily jobs.”
Lynch said his time studying systems engineering has transformed how he thinks about engineering.
“My perspective moved from learning about the technical aspects of engineering – like math-heavy courses and thermodynamics stuff – into one where I think: ‘once we build this technology, how do we actually implement it?’” he said.
CSU-NREL partnership steps forward with new courses
Systems Engineering is slated to offer two new courses in electric vehicle engineering in Spring 2024. The first is in hybrid-electric vehicle powertrains (MECH 527) and the second is a materials course in vehicle energy storage system design (MECH 523). Other new and updated courses will be offered in following semesters.
These courses were made directly possible through the recent CDOT grant and in partnership with Lightning eMotors, a Colorado company that builds and maintains electric automotive infrastructure.
Lynch said he looks forward to furthering his education through the CSU-NREL joint program.
“I want to ensure the wonderful technology that has taken over 10 years to develop can actually play a role in our society,” he said.