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The Road to Renewable Energy: Spring Study Abroad Offers Global Perspectives

Energy is constantly needed and constantly used. At the beginning of spring term, 13 mechanical engineering students visited 22 different energy sites to learn about how different places around the globe are generating energy to keep the world running.

Led by Dr. Maynes and Dr. Webb, the group visited four countries during the first three weeks of May 2022, some as close as Mona, UT and others as far as Sweden.The Longvine growing plant producing tomatoes year round, a fabrication plant producing 120 meter long wind turbine blades, and a municipal waste burning plant under an artificial ski hill that helps light and heat a city in Denmark were just a few of their stops.

“With all of these things combined, students had first-hand experiences in places that most people who have been around engineering for 20-30 years haven't been able to go see,” Dr. Webb said.

“It was really cool piecing together how energy works in today's world, but from a lot of different perspectives…I learned that Denmark is capable of producing most of its energy just from wind,” said junior Ariel Cable. “We also learned how important a mixed energy portfolio is — even though Denmark can handle generating most of their energy through wind, not everywhere is suited for that.”

While learning about these energy sources, students also had the opportunity to be immersed in different cultures and see the importance of energy in different countries. This year was particularly interesting because of the conflict in Ukraine.

“When the students were in Denmark and Italy they were hearing from all of the hosts of the sites how significant the conflict in Ukraine is, because they've seen their energy prices spike dramatically,” Dr. Maynes explained. “Europe gets most of its natural gas and oil from Russia, and so it has a tremendous impact on their economies, how much their electricity costs and how quickly they transition to renewable sources.”

This is the first time the study abroad has happened since 2019 because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Maynes and Webb created the study abroad experience and the preparatory winter term seminar class (Global Perspectives on Energy and the Environment) to increase exposure to important energy perspectives. They plan the trip so students can return from Europe in time for summer internships to help them progress in a competitive field.

“Our goal is not only for them to understand all of the issues, but to help prepare them for work in the energy industry if they choose to,” said Dr. Webb. “I can’t pick a specific favorite part of the experience, but what I get satisfaction from is watching the students.”

Many of the students came away saying this was the most impactful experience in their education, and a major influence on their future career pursuits.

“I felt like before the study abroad, I didn't know what I wanted to do because I didn't know what was there for me to do, and now I don't know what I want to do because there's so much I could do,” said junior Landon McNeil.

Both the class and the study abroad helped incoming senior Josh Augenstein to narrow his focus of study toward renewable energy for the rest of his education.

“I would definitely love to see a trend towards this clean and renewable energy. I think that we need to push that way,” Augenstein said. “We learned that unfortunately a lot of it is about public opinion and policy. I think one of the most impactful things about this trip for me was learning that we all do have an individual influence, but we need to use that to move this way [toward renewable energy].”

At the conclusion of the trip, students directed their attention to energy storage, the final paper topic to help them generate ideas for a real world problem.

“I think that was really one of the biggest takeaways that will be part of the future of energy, is the storage of energy,” McNeil said. “As we make a transition to renewable energy, we can't do that unless we find a way to take that energy for times of peak demand and weak supply and overlap them.”

Experiences like this study abroad are paving the way for mechanical engineering students to not only change their own futures, but the future of the world.