Higher education can provide new basics for bioenergy

By Luke Geiver | January 11, 2011

The handwriting is on the wall for renewable energy, and the message indicates that the clean energy industry is in need of employees with a strong understanding of sustainable energy, according to Dr. Alan Hardcastle, senior research associate at Washington State University. Without those individuals, Hardcastle implied, the development of renewable energy will be challenged.

Hardcastle, along with other speakers from the Pacific Northwest representing higher education, spoke about the future of renewable energy and the role educational institutions will play in the future success of the industry during a panel at the 2011 Pacific West Biomass Conference & Trade Show in Seattle. Every speaker on the panel, titled Higher Education as Industry Catalyst: Bioenergy Education in the Pacific West, suggested that while the bioenergy economy is growing, the labor force needed for the industry may be falling behind.

“There is a concern that there is a lack of renewable education at all levels,” Hardcastle said, and employers are starting to voice that concern. Several renewable energy companies and other organizations are making an effort to become more sustainable, Hardcastle said and that push has created a “green” skill set he called the new basics. “A green job may require more skills and an understanding of knowing what is going on in clean renewable energy,” he said, “and this will be an important trend in our universities.” Fortunately, as Hardcastle pointed out, educational facilities will benefit from the new skill set required by some employers. “One of the things I think is most promising about the development in renewable energy is the interest we are having from young people,” he said. “Renewables offer a spark plug for attracting young people, which is what we’ll need.”

Rob Costello, the dean for Trades & Technology at Bellingham Technical College, spoke during the panel about a new sustainable energy certificate offered to all students. Technicians, he said, will leave the program with an enhanced skill set in sustainable energy that includes the fundamentals of sustainable energy along with an understanding of various technologies. The school has partnered with Washington State University on a project aimed at anaerobic digester operational and maintenance skills. “A lot of students say they want to be in renewable energy without having an idea of what that means,” Costello said. The certificate program, he said, will help students gain a better, more applicable knowledge of what sustainable energy means.

Like Costello, Daniel Schwartz, the director of the bioresource-based energy for sustainable societies interdisciplinary Ph.D. program at the University of Washington, is also working with students to develop bioenergy-related skills. Schwartz has started a doctorate program for students that he said could be similar to a biomass consulting company. During one project, the students performed feasibility studies on sourcing biomass for a cogeneration facility that would use wood waste. The group also performed biomass assessments and biomass cost estimations during the project. Overall, Schwartz said his program will create roughly 32 doctorate level graduates.

Also from Washington State, Candis Claiborn, dean of the college of engineering and architecture, described the university’s efforts to develop students capable of working at an integrated biorefinery. The program includes work on fungal catalyst development, algal biomass, feedstock pretreatment, thermochemical conversion approaches and several other biorefinery-specific areas. Claiborn also said the school has instituted an entrepreneur in residence program that helps students developing innovative products or processes to meet other entrepreneurs in the community, all of which will help the bioenergy industry grow.