Energy production is one of the biggest global sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
But decarbonizing energy production and energy systems doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all answer. It’s complicated.
“Some people may think that it's all technology – if the technology is there, our solution is done,” says UConn’s Emmanouil Anagnostou, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor in Civil & Environmental Engineering and the Eversource Energy Endowed Chair in Environmental Engineering.
“But the reality is that we want technologies that are mindful of, or at least applicable to, the societal needs,” he says. “A lot of times, the technology alone is not enough. You have to consider the economics. There are regulatory and policy considerations that can change drastically how a particular solution may or may not be acceptable or adaptable to a particular situation. So, it's a multidimensional problem.”
It’s also a problem that utility companies like Eversource are continuously grappling with, but that students and average citizens often aren’t full aware of as they charge their new electric vehicles, crank up the summer air conditioning, or read headlines about market forces driving consumer electric prices higher.
“Energy is like water, where you turn the faucet and you expect it to come on,” says Genevieve Rigler ’19 (ENG/CLAS), ’22 MS, a doctoral student in civil engineering and the 2023 Dwight David Eisenhower Transportation Fellow at UConn. “There's almost no tolerance for uncertainty in energy – people expect to have it when they want it. That level of intolerance for failure, matched with the level of uncertainty of what electric vehicles will do to the energy market and energy prices, how we'll handle it from one state to another and if there will be interstate cooperation for these energy needs, as well as the role that offshore plays into it, the life cycle of technologies and when they'll fail, not to mention new extreme climate events – it's not happening in a vacuum.”
But UConn is trying to start bridging the gap for graduate and undergraduate students through a program launched in partnership with Eversource and through UConn’s multidisciplinary CLEAN EARTH Laboratory that’s challenging – and funding – six student teams this summer to develop interdisciplinary ideas about how UConn, the state of Connecticut, and the region can work toward sustainability and decarbonization goals.
“CLEAN EARTH represents faculty from many different colleges and schools, so it was a good place to conceive and create this challenge,” says Anagnostou, who is a principal investigator in the lab.
Launched earlier this year, the Clean Energy & Sustainability Innovation Program asked students to think critically about steps to take to reduce carbon footprints, foster environmental justice, and prepare for climate extremes. Thirteen teams of students from a broad spectrum of the University submitted written proposals to be considered as fellows in this inaugural edition of the program.
The six selected finalist teams include a total of 16 students – seven undergraduates and nine graduates – representing 18 departments within the College of Agriculture, Health and Natural Resources; the School of Engineering; the School of Business; and the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences.
The program launched on June 1 and culminates in a day-long summit in Storrs on October 4, where a panel of academic, utility, industry, municipal, and legislative experts will select the top teams to continue supporting the advancement of their ideas – with the overall goal of not only developing the solutions of the future, but also helping nurture the next generation of leaders in engineering, policy, law, and sustainability here at UConn.
The program hits at the heart of UConn’s commitment to home-grown innovation that addresses sustainability needs at home and around the world.
“This program combines the essential ingredients necessary to help make progress toward a new energy future: our talented undergraduate and graduate students, our world-class faculty, and vital industry partners all working together to advance this cause,” says UConn President Radenka Maric. “In the process our students will gain knowledge, experience, and insight from those faculty and industry leaders, which will serve them very well as they continue their own academic and professional paths forward in the months and years ahead.”
The teams will largely set their own path for their project development over the summer, with the assistance of 10 UConn mentors and six Eversource mentors will work with the teams as they research and develop their ideas. The program is fully funded by Eversource.
“I’m pleased to extend my sincere congratulations to the UConn students who have been selected for the 2023 Clean Energy & Sustainability Innovation Program,” says Eversource’s President of Transmission & Offshore Wind Projects Bill Quinlan. “The energy and sustainability challenges we face are significant, and demand fresh perspectives and innovative solutions. As we work to transform energy in both our region and our nation, it is talented individuals like this year’s participants who will play a critical role in shaping a more sustainable world. Eversource is proud to support this important program and is pleased to help provide the opportunity for young leaders to learn, collaborate, and advance a cleaner, more sustainable future.”
It’s also an opportunity for the students to get a glimpse at the kinds of engineering, innovation, and career opportunities presented by energy utilities like Eversource, that are constantly seeking not just engineers but a wide variety of professional who understand how energy distribution works.
“I think this program is also meeting a need for the utility,” says Rigler, who is helping coordinate the program this summer, “because it's kind of informing and changing the pipeline of students that they get, but also showing students that this is the type of knowledge that will help you when you go into the job market.”
All of the teams who submitted proposals impressed program organizers with the critical thought and commitment that they demonstrated to their ideas.
“I can tell you that the committee had a hard time selecting the winners,” Anagnostou says. “All of them carried our attention, and if we had the funds, we could have funded them all. They touched very sensitive problems, I would say very difficult problems, and I'm very interested to see how they’re going to approach them.”
The projects and student teams selected for the 2023 Clean Energy & Sustainability Innovation Program are:
Clean Energy Innovations: Revolutionizing UConn's Power Infrastructure – Malachi Denton ’24 (ENG), environmental engineering major; Malik Francis ’24 (ENG), computer engineering major; and Kevon Rattigan ’25 (CLAS), chemistry major
“Our research proposal aims to tackle UConn campuses' clean energy sustainability issue. We plan to retire the current natural gas-based Co-Generation Facility, reduce carbon emissions, and find a comprehensive energy solution for the campus. Our proposed solutions include comparing greenhouse gas emissions between the UConn microgrid and the Eversource grid, implementing load-shaping and demand management techniques, and exploring the use of energy storage solutions.”
Addressing UConn’s Growing Energy Demand: Alternative Organic Fuel Sources and Sustainable Energy Consumption – Hasan Nikkhah, doctoral candidate in chemical engineering; Francesco Rouhana, doctoral candidate in civil engineering; and Dev Barochia ’25 (ENG), chemical engineering major
“The attainment of sustainability goals at UConn requires the implementation of a comprehensive strategy encompassing both social and technical interventions. In the technical domain, a plausible solution involves enhancing the Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant to accommodate versatile feedstocks, specifically biomass and solar energy, thereby substituting the conventional use of natural gas. Complementing this approach, the integration of sensor systems within UConn's buildings can effectively monitor and display real-time energy and water consumption data, fostering increased consciousness among the campus community regarding resource usage practices and the ecological ramifications associated with individual buildings.”
Enhancing Connecticut’s Green Economy: Comprehensive Short and Long-Term Approach to Renewable Energy Transition – Austin Gelinas ’25 (ENG), chemical engineering major; and Pranavi Rebala '25 (CLAS), economics and urban and community studies major
“Our project proposes a comprehensive two-part strategy for New England's power grids, specifically focusing on the University of Connecticut, to address their heavy reliance on natural gas combustion. The strategy implements solar PV-thermal hybrid systems and hydroelectric energy to increase power production in the short run, while facilitating a long term transition to nuclear energy. The expected outcome is to diversify UConn’s energy sources through equitable and sustainable financing models."
Exploring Solar Canopies and Alternative Solar Panels Options for UConn – Kevin Howson, energy and environment management master of science program, focusing on law; Jacob Hyler, energy and environment management master of science program, focusing on sustainability; and Julie Sandberg, energy and environment management master of science program, focusing on geographic information systems
“Team MEEM will be working on the research surrounding the installation of parking lot solar canopies and the potential to add solar panels to building rooftops by using thin film solar panels or solar shingles as an alternative, lighter-weight option. Implementing solar as a renewable energy source will help UConn with their carbon footprint because solar power does not produce emissions during the generation process. Examination of life-cycle assessments demonstrate that solar produces a smaller carbon output than traditional ‘cradle-to-grave’ fossil fuels, and will lower UConn's dependence on the traditional electric grid.”
Optimization of Energy Consumption and Emissions Reduction in UConn Campuses through Intelligent Energy Management Systems – Anietie W. Williams, doctoral candidate in chemistry; and Faith Wariri, doctoral candidate in computer science and engineering
“Our team proposes developing an intelligent energy management system for UConn campuses, starting with the main campus in Storrs, to fulfill the sustainability goals and address local issues. Leveraging small-scale systems like microgrids and incorporating data analytics, machine learning, and optimization approaches, we aim to reduce energy waste, promote sustainable practices, and compare the costs and emissions reduction characteristics of different projects. We will explore alternative clean energy sources such as biomass and food wastes, evaluate load-shaping strategies, and create algorithms to forecast the viability and availability of bio-renewable energy resources, ultimately aiming to develop a comprehensive roadmap for UConn's decarbonized and sustainable energy system.”
A Real-time Behind the Meter PV Generation Forecasting System – Kexin Song, doctoral candidate in natural resources and the environment; Haoyi Wang, doctoral candidate in electrical engineering; and Paul Zambrzycki ‘24 (ENG), electrical engineering major
“In 2022, solar provided 3.17% of Connecticut electricity, but the stochastic nature of solar PV generation poses significant challenges in reliable and secure grid operations. To address this problem, we will develop a Real-Time behind-the-meter Solar Power Forecasting (RTSPF) system that will use remote sensing to help with power dispatching optimization, overvoltage management, and clean energy transitions. This project has the potential to support statewide decarbonization and energy equity goals.”