Launched in fall 2015, the RISE (Resilient Innovation through Sustainable Engineering) Forum is a membership-based leadership consortium within Villanova University’s Sustainable Engineering graduate program. As a vehicle for industry–academic collaboration, RISE partners organizations with student teams to provide data-driven solutions that focus on a more sustainable future. This past academic year, one such initiative brought students together with a local municipality.
Alumnus Andy Katronick ’19 MSSE is on the board for Plymouth Township in Montgomery County, PA, one of the many communities participating in the nationwide “Ready for 100” initiative, a grassroots movement to achieve 100% renewable energy. Katronick reached out to RISE Program Director Karl Schmidt to see if Sustainable Engineering students could collaborate with the township on this project. Seeing an opportunity for RISE to give back to the community in a volunteer capacity, Schmidt agreed. The objective was to assist the township with a plan to meet their renewable energy goals. The work began in fall 2019 and continued through the spring with a student team comprised of Mohamed Abaas, Elizabeth Larsen, Matthew Peterson and Jessica Vairo.
Using the STEEP model, a concept weaved throughout the graduate program that takes into account social, technological, economic, environmental and political impacts, the students worked with Bill Sabey, head of Plymouth Township’s Environmental Advisory Board, to collect the necessary data, offer an assessment and make recommendations.
The team began by establishing a baseline of the township’s energy use and expenses and looking for opportunities to reduce consumption. They considered the advantages of securing energy from renewable sources or building renewable generation, including a model for a rooftop solar system at the local community center. They also evaluated the many variables involved to model economic and environmental impacts in order to recommend cost-effective solutions with a realistic payback period.
The project team further investigated renewable energy funding grants and incentives from the state and federal government and analyzed quotes from developers for solar installations. Gas-fueled township cars were identified as an area in which the township could further reduce energy consumption. The team is exploring the feasibility of electric vehicles or alternative fuels to transition some of the township’s fleet. Working through the challenges presented by COVID-19, the students conducted a virtual building audit, facilitated by adjunct professor Tad Radzinski who teaches a Sustainable Buildings & Operations course in the graduate program.
Of all the options provided, the solar rooftop installation was of greatest interest to the town council. “We were able to show them that there are ways to do this to while saving money, especially with incentives available from the government,” says student team leader Matthew Peterson. The team helped to provide a timeline for this program and talked with developers to validate their estimates. It was also important to set a goal and target for energy reduction. The team presented an accelerated eight-year timeline to Plymouth Township Council. Moving forward, the students are compiling their recent work on the electrification of heating and transportation where the township is currently using liquid fuels. They are summarizing the findings from both semesters in a precursor to an Energy Transition Plan.
The Sustainable Engineering project team meets with the Plymouth Township Environmental Advisory Board every month. “It’s really collaborative between the two groups. We are almost functioning as full energy planners,” notes Matthew. “We’re there to respond to any questions or do the research if we don’t know the answer. We all want to know what it’s going to take to get to 100%.” He adds: “Understanding the whole system is helping us make strong decisions. This is a project we were all excited to work on; everyone wants to have a positive impact in our local community.”
After presenting their work at a meeting of Montgomery County leaders, there was an obvious interest in seeing the team expand its efforts to other municipalities. Whitemarsh Environmental Advisory Board Vice-Chair Lou Ann Merkle remarked on the “superb work” and thanked the team for what she called “a formidable gift to the community, the planet and the future.” Madge Monser of Ambler’s Environmental Advisory Council said, “Villanova’s Sustainable Engineering students and Professor Karl Schmidt are engaged in educational opportunities that shape the future of our communities.” Finally, Plymouth Township’s Bill Sabey offered the team his appreciation for their contributions and thanked Schmidt “for providing such a talented group.”