Students explore the complexities of creating energy stanford news electricity dance moms

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As the students peered through the water, secluded in nature and miles from a light switch, their thoughts revolved around energy – hydroelectric, nuclear, coal, natural gas, wind and solar – and how these modern developments influence wildlife that has inhabited the Columbia River basin for thousands of years.

During Water and Power in the Pacific Northwest: The Columbia River, a Sophomore College (SoCo) experience, these undergraduates studied water and energy resources in the West in the context of rapid climate change, ecosystem impacts, economics and public policy. The three-week field course provided an interdisciplinary approach for students of all majors entering their sophomore year to critically examine the challenges of managing the complex, interlocking water, power and environmental resources of the Columbia River basin in the face of climate change and population growth.

“Coming into this, I had a pretty strong opinion on these dams and on the salmon, but being here and talking to people who passionately believe something very different has been eye-opening,” said Kenzie Roan, a civil and environmental engineering student. “We can’t do anything without water and energy and yet we think so little about it and talk so little about it in general conversation – this makes you no longer take it for granted.”

Students heard from dozens of leaders in the Pacific Northwest who see connections between water and power and their direct impacts on the environment and local communities. They learned time and again that balancing the priorities of agriculture, utilities, Native peoples and electricity consumers is no easy feat.

“Our classroom is talking to people who work in the real world who run power plants, who run wind farms, who operate large irrigation systems, who take care of the fish in the river,” said Sally Benson, one of the course co-leaders and a professor of energy resources engineering in the School of Earth, Energy & Environmental Sciences (Stanford Earth). “The real world is our classroom here.”

Students spent the first week on campus learning about water and energy on a national scale. The class also visited Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve to learn about the interactions between old dams and natural ecosystems and Stanford Energy System Innovations (SESI), an on-campus facility built to reduce the cost and environmental impact of energy at Stanford.

Students on the trip had to confront many of their own biases about energy production and the environment. For many students, nothing brought up more questions than the Columbia Generating Station, a nuclear power plant in Richland, Washington, that required security pre-approvals for entry.

“When I got there, I realized just how big of a scale this operation is, all the security that goes into it, the complexities of storing nuclear waste and producing the power,” said Paige Brown, a chemical engineering student. “Everything is a lot more complex than the news stories make it out to be. I’m still very much in favor of nuclear power, but it’s going to take a lot of political wrangling to get to the point where it’s generally accepted.”

Lecturing on the bus rides from site to site, the professors prompted the students to think about different energy production tradeoffs. Benson led discussions comparing factors such as energy output capacities, lifespan, generating costs, wildlife impacts and public sentiment.

“I’ve done a lot of water research growing up, but with this class I realized that the Columbia River is a lot more than just the water,” Brown said. “I actually became very interested in the geology surrounding the river, the political realities surrounding the river, and the people there and how they interact.”

Attending a policy panel with local water experts, politicians and lawyers brought public interests to the forefront. For Fenner, the most interesting part of the presentation was that the irrigators and the tribes took the same side, since those two groups are normally butting heads over water rights, he said.

“There is a lot of work to be done, and part of that work is talking to folks like yourself and the next generation of leaders, because it will be you and your peers working on this,” said panelist Tebb, a Yakima Valley native with more than 31 years of environmental and engineering experience. The SoCo experience

The Bill Lane Center offers an interdisciplinary water and energy-themed SoCo course every other year, and past trips have involved the Colorado River, Wyoming and the southwest U.S. Alternate years focus on resource management in the West, and the 2018 program will take students to Utah.

“I chose this trip because it tied in a lot of things that I was interested in – water, the environment, energy – and it’s based in a location that I knew almost nothing about, so I thought it would have really great potential for learning about a lot of different things.”

“I am very undecided as to what I want to major in,” said student Simone Speizer, who declared a major in the atmosphere/energy program in civil and environmental engineering after participating in the SoCo course. “I chose this trip because it tied in a lot of things that I was interested in – water, the environment, energy – and it’s based in a location that I knew almost nothing about, so I thought it would have really great potential for learning about a lot of different things.”

Fenner found one of the most valuable aspects of the program was the ability to explore subjects outside his academic interests. While he would like to pursue a degree in management science and engineering, the SoCo course offered more in-depth engineering content than he will likely be exposed to on campus, he said.

“It makes me think about academics a bit differently because I’ve never had this much time one-on-one with a professor – or three of them,” Fenner said. “Being able to talk to them and learn more about education and the university in general is really useful.”

By the end of the trip, the students had a lot to reflect on. They had submitted daily journals summarizing their site visits, bonded with a new group of peers and shared in the heart-wrenching discovery of how hydropower development created a cascade of consequences that will last well into future generations.