Helping the Golden State shine again

Master's project takes on renewable energy in the California deserts

Ten SNRE students are sharing The Wilderness Society’s largest annual scholarship award for their research into public lands, renewable energy and California deserts.

The Gloria Barron Wilderness Society Scholarship is given annually—usually to an individual student—to support research and preparation of an academic paper on some aspect of wilderness. Recently, judges bestowed the 2009 Society Scholarship upon the 10-student SNRE team because of the topicality and interdisciplinary breadth of their project.

“The judges were definitely drawn to the timeliness of the project,” said Spencer Phillips, vice president of Ecology & Economics Research at The Wilderness Society, in Washington, D.C. “Renewable energy development that will affect public lands is an important issue, and federal land managers—along with many others—need to get up to speed quickly. The analysis and tools the SNRE group proposes to develop will be invaluable.”

The students’ research started earlier this year as part of a year-long master’s project. The 400,000-member organization had earlier volunteered to become a client to an SNRE student team. Next, the students worked with the group’s leaders to define the scope of the project, leading to the master’s proposal.
“When combined with expanded conservation and efficiency, renewable energy is key to the West’s energy and economic future and to the nation’s response to the challenges of climate change,” the students wrote in their overview. “Significant opportunities exist to promote distributed generation of solar and wind energy, but large- scale central generation will likely be an important component of a national transition to clean energy. Solar and wind energy generation are the leading technologies that offer the potential to be deployed at the utility scale.”

Their research activity, which includes conducting interviews, creating databases, reviewing policies and synthesizing reports, will continue this year, culminating in a presentation of their findings in the spring of 2010. The master’s project’s title is “Renewable Energy in the California Desert: Mechanisms for Evaluating Solar Development on Public Lands.”

Eventually, the students will develop then apply a list of environmental screens to renewable energy projects in various California deserts. The screens include criteria such as distance to transmission, distance to load, impacts on wildlife habitat and impacts on wildlife species. The students then plan to compile, analyze and translate the environmental screens for use in evaluating the impact of renewable energy projects on important environmental factors.

Phillips said he was particularly impressed by the interdisciplinary approach of the project and the students’ intention to use geographic information systems tools to tie the various types of information together. The interdisciplinary nature of the research is rooted in the students’ academic interests: Many are pursuing dual degrees at the University of Michigan. The students are Jesse Fernandes, Natalie Flynn, Samantha Gibbes, Matt Griffis, Takahiro Isshiki, Sean Killian, Laura Palombi, Nerissa Rujanavech, Sarah Tomsky and Merry Tondro. Their adviser is SNRE Professor Steven Yaffee.

“We are thrilled and honored to be selected for this prestigious award,” said Tomsky, who also completed an internship this
summer at The Wilderness Society. “The scholarship will greatly bolster our capacity to pursue our research on this important topic.”

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