Energizing university collaboration in renewable energy
Arizona Student Energy Conference brings together graduate students and postdoctoral researchers from the state’s three public universities to solve pressing energy issues
Stephen Goodnick, the David and Darleen Ferry Professor of Electrical Engineering in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University, and his collaborator Neal Armstrong, the Regents Professor Emeritus of chemistry at the University of Arizona, formed a conference for students from the two universities in 2010 to meet and exchange research findings and ideas related to the renewable energy sector.
“We needed to be working as a state, not individual universities competing against each other,” says Goodnick, a faculty member in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, part of the Fulton Schools.
This collaboration formed the Arizona Student Energy Conference, or AzSEC, which held its 12th annual event in early April in Old Main on ASU’s Tempe campus. The conference also includes Northern Arizona University, which joined AzSEC a few years after it began; hosting duties rotate between the three universities. The universities complement each other’s geographic sustainability specialties, such as NAU’s focus on harnessing northern Arizona’s wind for electricity, while ASU and UA specialize in harnessing the desert’s plentiful sun for solar power.
Originally funded through the Arizona Board of Regents Technology and Research Initiative Fund, the conference is now supported by utility companies in Arizona, including the Salt River Project, or SRP, Arizona Public Service, or APS, and Tucson Electric Power, or TEP, as well as energy industry companies such as Schneider Electric. Representatives from the companies participate in industry panels that give students networking opportunities and insight into the power and energy industries.
The conference also includes a variety of panels and keynote speeches, which feature industry members, government officials and academics. A central theme focused on an energy issue ties together the activities at each conference.
The 2023 AzSEC theme was making the transition to renewable energy equitable and inclusive. Keynote speaker Shalanda H. Baker, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, focused on this theme in her speech, emphasizing that the transition to renewable energy should not leave out low-income and minority groups.
“It’s really special to be in a room full of students,” Baker said during the conference. “You’re very much the future, and the things that you will get to do to transform our energy system into one that is more just and equitable, I can’t even begin to imagine.”
The conference hosts activities to engage students, industry members and academics such as practicing writing research proposals and hosting poster competitions showing students’ energy discoveries.
Powering up connectivity for energy projects
Goodnick’s mentee Maxx Patterson, a sustainable energy doctoral candidate in ASU’s College of Global Futures’ School of Sustainability, has attended multiple years of AzSEC and sees the event as a unique chance for students from universities across the state to make important connections.
“I referred one individual I spoke with from another university to contacts at APS and SRP,” Patterson says. “When we met, he told me who he hoped to connect with, and I was able to point him in the right direction.”
As part of the AzSEC student organizing committee, Patterson’s involvement includes organizing event logistics and running parts of the conference such as the research pitch showcase.
AzSEC also provided Patterson the opportunity to meet officials from institutions not easily accessible to students otherwise, such as the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL.
“Now that I’ve met people in prominent organizations like that, I can call on them as a reference,” he says. “That kind of connectivity is valuable for my career.”
Electrifying student and industry connections
Tom Acker, a senior principal engineer in innovation and development at SRP, originally got involved in AzSEC when he was a faculty member at Northern Arizona University specializing in renewable energy.
After retiring from the university, he began working at SRP. Acker’s department at the company is a longtime supporter of the conference, and both he and his department continue their involvement.
This year, Acker gave opening welcome remarks and moderated the industry panel on career paths in power and energy. He says the conference helps industry members identify students for potential internships and jobs.
“The electrical energy system is going through a big transformation to renewables, and we need talent to help us in that transition,” Acker says. “We need everyone to understand what that transition is.”
He says the conference also gives SRP a chance to advance their efforts in corporate social responsibility.
“We believe in the future of our community and of the environment,” Acker says. “We believe in energy justice, and this is a forum where we can see what’s going on at the universities, and we can build those relationships that help us get to those goals.”
To learn more about the AzSEC conference, visit the website or contact event coordinator Ruby Sayed at firstname.lastname@example.org.