UC Students travel to Denmark for Renewable Energy Summer Program

News from UC Santa Cruz, Office of Public Affairs


Faculty at the University of California, Santa Cruz,
have organized a renewable energy program that will bring together U.S.
and Danish students for four weeks this summer in Lolland, Denmark.

The Lolland California Renewable Energies (LoCal-RE) program is an
international collaboration involving three UC campuses–Santa Cruz,
Davis, and Merced–and Denmark's Roskilde University and Technical
University of Denmark. About 20 UC students and 20 Danish students,
both undergraduates and graduates, will take part this summer.

The students will visit communities in Lolland, where a variety of
renewable energy sources are being used, and they will work with
experts to study these projects. Such hands-on, project-based learning
will give them a better grasp of the complexities involved in the
global push to shift from fossil fuels to sustainable and renewable
forms of energy, said program organizer Ali Shakouri, a professor of
electrical engineering in UCSC's Baskin School of Engineering.

"We teach theoretical concepts of renewable energy devices and sources
in our classes at UCSC," Shakouri said. "But our best demonstrations
involve, for example, only small solar cells that students can purchase
from RadioShack. So they understand the fundamentals, but they don't
get a feeling for renewable energy's real-scale implementation."

Concerns over the impacts of fossil fuel consumption on climate and the
environment are driving current interest in renewable energy sources.
Lolland, a municipality south of Copenhagen, is at the forefront of
developing and implementing renewable energy and has signed a "green
partnership resolution" with the City of Santa Cruz. Lolland Mayor Stig
came to UCSC last year as part of a delegation visiting the
Santa Cruz area.

Lolland's projects include large-scale facilities such as the Nysted
Offshore Wind Farm (the world's largest), the Vestas Wind Systems blade
factory, as well as "community test beds" for renewable energy sources
that don't yet exist commercially. For instance, researchers at the
Hydrogen Community on Lolland recently completed a project using wind
power to generate hydrogen gas and pump it through pipes into several
houses. They then used another device to convert hydrogen in these
houses to electricity and heat.

"This is not the type of project where you can do a one-time
demonstration and show that it works, that the problem is solved," said
Shakouri. "It's still too expensive, and the flammability of hydrogen
is a concern. At Lolland, we'll be able to study the data they collect
over the years and see how these problems might eventually be solved."

Bioenergy plants are also a big feature in Lolland. Corn and other
energy crops are distilled to produce alcohol, which can then be added
to conventional gas to make "gasohol." Adding vegetable oils, such as
soybean oil, to regular diesel (a byproduct of petroleum) produces
biodiesel. Methane from animal waste, such as cow manure, can also be
used as a fuel.

"It's about burning organic products like plants, instead of fossil
fuels," Shakouri explained. "You'll still generate carbon dioxide, but
when that plant was growing, it absorbed the same amount of carbon; so
burning it doesn't cause a net change in the atmosphere."

As with hydrogen, however, bioenergy has its own problems, chief among
them the impact on world food supplies of using crops for fuel. Even
wind energy has its problems; some wind farms kill significant numbers
of birds such as eagles and hawks, which collide with the blades of
wind turbines.

"The overriding principle here is that there's no free lunch," said
Shakouri. "So we emphasize the drawbacks, as well as the strengths, of
each renewable energy technology."

Shakouri will be joining the students in Denmark this summer as one of
five members of the program's teaching staff. The others include Joel
, associate professor of electrical engineering at UCSC, Bryan
, professor of biological and agricultural engineering at UC
Davis, and two faculty members from the participating Danish

Shakouri studies thermoelectric devices based on metals and
semiconductors that directly convert heat into electricity; he's
working to find new materials that will increase their efficiency.
These materials are called "nanocomposites," as they involve the mixing
and manipulation of matter at the atomic scale through nanotechnology.
Shakouri heads the Thermionic Energy Conversion Center, which includes
12 research groups from seven U.S. universities, all focused on the
goal of making new metal-semiconductor nanocomposites.

Eight of the U.S. students participating in LoCal-RE this summer hail
from UCSC. They all did well in Shakouri's "Renewable Energy Sources"
course and were selected on the strength of their application essays.
Daniel O'Leary, a graduate student in computer engineering, said he
looks forward to meeting European researchers in the field of renewable
energies. He will also be looking for ideas for a renewable energy lab
class he is developing with Shakouri and Kubby at UCSC.

Lara Hale
, an undergraduate majoring in environmental studies and
biology, applied for the program in order to visit Lolland's renewable
energy sites and interact with a local community that has become energy
independent. The best way to learn about renewable energy's potential
applications, she wrote, is "to see them with my own eyes."

"The one thing I want to leave Denmark with is optimism–the belief
that we can do it, too, and that sustainability is more than a
pipedream; it's a reality at our fingertips if we just reach out and
grab it," Hale said.

The other six UCSC students are Toshimi Barks, an undergraduate
majoring in environmental studies; Tela Favaloro, a graduate student in
electrical engineering; Mona Hammoudeh, an undergraduate majoring in
environmental studies with economics; Jeremy Hieb, a graduate student
in electrical engineering; Philip Jackson, an undergraduate majoring in
physics; and Juan Pasqua, an undergraduate majoring in civil

At the end of the summer program, each student will write one chapter
of a final research report covering analyses of renewable energy
problems, solutions from Lolland that might be useful in their home
communities, and recommendations for the future. Shakouri and the other
participating faculty members are also discussing the potential for
graduate-level exchange programs between universities in Denmark and
California, along with internship opportunities at various renewable
energy companies.

Next year, LoCal-RE will be held on U.S. soil; students will spend two
weeks at UCSC and another two at the NASA Ames Research Center in
Silicon Valley. According to Shakouri, California is of great interest
to Danish researchers as a state with some of the most progressive laws
for increasing the use of renewable energy and for encouraging
sustainable development. The state is also home to many innovative
start-up companies in green technologies, he said.

"Scientists should be aware of the social aspects of implementing new
technology," Shakouri stressed. "I think if we focus only on making
better solar cells, better engines…that alone won't solve the energy
problem. People will have to change their way of life, which isn't