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Students initiate new grant program for renewable energy research

BOONE—Students at Appalachian State University believe so strongly in reducing their environmental impact while on campus that they charge themselves a fee to support renewable energy projects. Now, they have begun using some of that revenue to support faculty research related to renewable energy.

View larger imageSolar thermal water heating systems atop campus buildings are among alternative energy projects supported by Appalachian State University’s Renewable Energy Initiative. The student fee-supported REI will now fund faculty research beginning in Spring 2013. (file photo)

“To my knowledge, this may be a first – students providing funding for faculty research,” said Dr. Edelma Huntley, the university’s chief research officer and dean of the Cratis D. Williams Graduate School.

The idea originated with the student-run Renewable Energy Initiative, which students established in 2004 to support renewable energy projects on campus to help offset the university’s dependence on fossil fuels and serve as outreach and education to students about the benefits of renewable energy. REI consists of a 12-member student committee, which directs use of the $10 per student per year REI fee. The initiative’s most visible projects on campus are the 100-kilowatt wind turbine, photovoltaic array at Raley Hall and solar thermal water heating systems at Plemmons Student Union and Summit Hall.

In late 2012, the REI committee partnered with the University Research Council to begin funding the new REI/URC Grants Program. Each group will provide $5,000 per semester. The initiative launches this spring with four faculty awards: two at $5,000 and four at $2,500. The deadline for proposals is Jan. 31, with the one-year grant period beginning March 1.

In subsequent years, the awards program will provide one grant at $5,000 and two at $2,500 each semester.

The faculty recipients must pursue research that is related to renewable energy and applicable to the Appalachian campus or its carbon footprint. Projects might range from investigation of new plant sources for biofuels to a study of public attitudes toward alternative sources of energy to analyses of campus energy usage to public art that inspires responsible energy use, according to the call for proposals.

The REI/URC Grant Program supports the university’s strategic plan, which includes strengthening resources provided to research at the nexus of energy, environment and economics.

“We really want to fund research that supports REI’s goals and helps us spend our money wisely. We’re also hoping to get a wide variety of interest from the faculty – such as from business, geography and planning, public administration – and ideas for non-technology-driven research, and see what we can learn from it,” said REI committee member Christopher Todd. A graduate student, he developed students’ casual conversations about funding faculty research into a formal proposal to the university.

As a 2012 graduate of Appalachian now pursuing two master’s degrees at the university (one in planning and the other in public administration), Todd said he’s “seen the power of research” for students as well as faculty.

“When faculty members receive grants for research, that means students often get to do research too. There are more opportunities for students,” he said. Todd worked with the Department of Geography and Planning’s Dr. Chris Badurek on micro-hydro electricity projects. This faculty mentor relationship also led to Todd’s deeper interest in sustainability and the opportunity to serve on the REI committee.

“I hope Appalachian can send out a new generation of students and faculty who have a better idea of what sustainability is, and the tools to implement those ideas. There’s only so much impact we can have from right here in Boone, but what we can do is create people who go out into the world and disperse that knowledge,” Todd said.

The new research grant program is in addition to the University Research Council’s existing research grant competition for faculty members. URC grants provide up to $5,000 to support faculty members’ research, scholarship and creative endeavors in a variety of disciplines.

Ged Moody, Appalachian’s director of sustainability, said the new REI/URC Grant Program shows students’ sincere interest in leveraging faculty expertise toward helping Appalachian achieve its goals of reducing its carbon footprint by 51 percent by 2025 and achieving climate neutrality by 2050.

“I like how the students are not just looking toward commercially available solutions, but see the need to push the boundaries technically. From an overall sustainability standpoint, this fits on so many levels – students supporting faculty research so that they may in turn provide research opportunities for other students and apply cutting-edge solutions to our campus’ renewable energy efforts,” Moody said.

About sustainability at Appalachian

Appalachian State University has a rich history of commitment to sustainable practices. The university has the nation’s oldest recognized sustainable development and appropriate technology academic programs, with alumni who are leaders in the “green” economy. Appalachian also rethinks common practices and implements state-of-the-art technologies related to energy production and energy conservation on campus. For this, Appalachian earned a STARS Gold rating in 2012 from the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education for its sustainability progress – earning the fourth-highest score in the country.

Appalachian has been recognized by SIERRA magazine as one of the top 10 “Coolest Schools” for 2012 for helping to solve climate problems and making significant efforts to operate sustainably. The university also was included in The Princeton Review’s 2012 “Guide to 322 Green Colleges,” which highlights institutions demonstrating above-average commitment to sustainability in terms of campus infrastructure, activities and initiatives.

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