New Zealand trip offers different perspective on renewable energy practices

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Students tour a wind farm in New Zealand during a recent study abroad trip that focused on the island nation's renewable energy practices.
Students tour a wind farm in New Zealand during a recent study abroad trip that focused on the island nation's renewable energy practices.
April 14, 2017

David Kubarek

It’s not every day a class lecture that begins at Penn State resumes halfway across the globe. But for a group of students studying renewable energy practices in New Zealand, it did just that.

Ten students taking a special three-credit course offered by Derek Elsworth, professor of energy and geo-environmental engineering, spent spring break touring the iconic landscape of the island nation while surveying measures it has taken to power itself using about 80 percent renewable energy.

The class took students through the process New Zealand followed to shift from fossil fuels, such as coal, toward renewables.

In the classroom on campus, students studied how factors such as geological resources, the marketplace, infrastructure and public input can reshape energy practices. During the trip, students toured hydroelectric facilities, which generate more than half the nation’s renewable energy needs, as well as geothermal and onshore wind farms, which together provide another 23 percent.

“As Penn State students, we talk a lot about the energy situation in Pennsylvania and the U.S. but we rarely talk about what’s happening elsewhere,” said Phil Badman, a senior majoring in energy engineering. “It was useful to see this really different country with different laws and a different geological setting and climate, and to see how the energy industry there adjusted to those conditions.”

Badman, from Pennsburg, Pennsylvania, is working toward a career designing and improving sustainable buildings. Seeing how New Zealand transitioned toward renewable energy was relevant to his aspirations, he said. So is the internship he landed with Private Energy Partners in Philadelphia, where he’ll conduct energy audits designed to help small businesses save on energy bills.

Materials science and engineering student, Emily Fucinato, from Syracuse, New York, is looking to study environmental law once she graduates in May. Learning how policy played a role in reshaping New Zealand’s energy sector most interested her.

She learned how New Zealand’s residents were first resistant to wind turbines, fearing a negative impact on wildlife, farming and the pristine landscape, but became swayed by the promise of jobs and safe, cheap and sustainable energy.

“People’s attitudes changed once they were installed,” Fucinato said. “They realized it was a good thing for the workforce and the general health of the economy there. It was interesting to see how their attitudes shifted.”

The class, and companion text “The Quest: Energy, Security, and the Remaking of the Modern World,” was a great primer for looking at New Zealand’s energy sector from a global perspective, Fucinato said.

She interns at the Penn State’s MorningStar Solar Home and said that solar energy was her first love. But she has a growing interest in other forms of renewable energy. She was thrilled to have the chance to touch the towering turbines and to spot nearby wind farms carved into the rolling New Zealand hills.

“It was cool taking in the view of a wind farm from a distance because you could see the entire landscape and you could see how the wind turbines fit into that landscape,” Fucinato said. “They don’t look like they stand out. They look like they’re part of the landscape.”

Bret Jablonski, a junior double majoring in energy business and finance and energy engineering, is seeking a career in renewable energy development, so he was interested in learning how logistical and economic factors had a hand in New Zealand’s energy transformation.  

The geology of the country has driven both geothermal and hydroelectric power, he said, but so has the costs of importing fossil fuels. New Zealand also has passed over some forms of renewable energy, such as solar and offshore wind, in favor of more cost-effective technologies. Studying these decisions, he said, will help him better understand energy scenarios he’ll experience in the U.S. So will his internship as a project manager with Lighthouse Electric, a company that’s helping renovate East Halls and the Agricultural Engineering Building on the University Park campus.

Jablonski, from Bayonne, New Jersey, said the class toured much of New Zealand’s North Island, where the bulk of the nation’s 4.5 million people live. It’s also where much of the energy is created.

Touring the facilities with energy professionals — who gave presentations and answered questions — was helpful, he said. So was seeing such a variety of facilities he’s learning about at Penn State.

“We were able to meet people who not only helped build but also currently work and maintain those facilities,” Jablonski said. “It was cool getting that first-hand experience from talking with the energy professionals, but it was also great to talk with regular local people and experience the cultural side of New Zealand.”

Elsworth said priceless knowledge is gained from being around energy professionals in a unique and exotic setting.

“Travel is always an enlivening and enlightening activity for students, and to see the things that they learn in class in the natural surroundings, is invaluable," said Elsworth. “But the trip is also a great opportunity for students and their professors to spend time together.”