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The Many Benefits of Hands-On Sustainability Training

By Sharon Chen
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How can we prepare our students for the green jobs of the future? Providing the academic groundwork for sustainability is important, but we must also give students the opportunity for hands-on, real world learning. By making sustainability come alive through real world applications, our universities and colleges can inspire our future leaders to lead on climate action.

At Stanford University, graduate students were given the opportunity to convince the East Palo Alto City Council to switch to clean energy for the city’s electricity needs. By working with industry experts, compiling data, and persuading city council members that the switch to clean energy is the smart way to go, the civil and environmental engineering students were given the opportunity to learn firsthand about sustainability and its practical applications.

Experiences such as this are valuable because they provide hands-on sustainability learning, and teach students how to sell green practices in a market that is saturated with less eco-friendly options. Focusing on the practical co-benefits of sustainability (job training, more affordable energy) is an important way that we can prepare our students for green jobs, and communicate more persuasively about climate action.

East Palo Alto moves to cleaner, cheaper electricity after Stanford students’ analysis

Mark Golden | Stanford University Precourt Institute for Energy 

Following the recommendation of four Stanford students, East Palo Alto’s City Council on Feb. 2 took the final step in joining Peninsula Clean Energy, which will supply San Mateo County residents and businesses with cleaner electricity at likely lower rates than that from investor-owned utility PG&E.

The graduate students worked with East Palo Alto staff to evaluate the possible benefits and risks of joining the non-profit Peninsula Clean Energy. They presented their analysis and a recommendation in favor of joining to the City Council in December. The work was part of a Stanford course, the Energy Transformation Collaborative. About $7 million a year in electricity supply is at stake.

“I think we were inclined to join, but it wasn’t certain. There were many doubts, questions and valid concerns,” said East Palo Alto City Manager Carlos Martinez. “The students clarified many of those questions and assessed multiple risks of joining. This work facilitated the City Council’s decision to join.”

The course last fall had four student teams work with East Palo Alto to address major challenges in sustainable energy, water, transportation and housing. With about a fifth of its 29,000 residents living below the poverty line, East Palo Alto faces more challenges with fewer resources than most towns in Silicon Valley. Peninsula Clean Energy promises electricity produced more renewably and at slightly lower cost than that from PG&E, but the upstart cannot guarantee lower prices for years to come. That concerned East Palo Alto staff. 

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