Going to the Source

Gina Cancelliere, with additional reporting by Dana Bauer.
May 01, 2000

"Twenty of us were together"—15 undergraduates, two instructors, and three graduate students to help with the driving—"for 24 hours a day, for two weeks," says student Kate Darby. "By 7 am, we had to be out and ready to go for a long day."

4 men, 1 woman wearing red hard hats, in foreground, pipe, plastic sheeting, wires aound them

The CAUSE 2000 students traveled through Colorado, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, and California to explore all different kinds of energy use. "We didn't gather data on the tour, which made us different from the other CAUSE trips, but we did see almost every kind of energy conversion out there," explains instructor Derek Elsworth.

They saw photovoltaics—solar panels—at the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Colorado. They met with energy consultants at the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) to discuss ways to make Penn State itself a more sustainable community using renewable forms of energy. "There was kind of a cult following among the CAUSE students when we were at RMI," says Elsworth, grinning. At the Hoover Dam along the Arizona/Nevada border, they saw the production of hydroelectric energy. They toured Yucca Mountain in Nevada, a potential nuclear waste storage facility. The Department of Energy is currently conducting tests to determine whether it's feasible to store radioactive waste within the mountain.

"It was like pulling hair to get some of the students to visit Yucca Mountain," Elsworth says. "But they learned that there's some good science being done there. Important considerations are being confronted head on. Garrett Fitzgerald, one of the students in the group, said a very poignant thing. He said, 'You know, the Yucca Mountain guys have the most important job. They have to protect us.'"

In California, the group saw hot springs, a nuclear plant, and wind farms—fields full of windmills harvesting energy from breezes that blow through mountain passes.

"One of our goals was to get them to think in terms of doing back-of-the-envelope calculations," Elsworth explains. "If we want to go from nuclear power to wind power, how do we do it? How many people are we supplying energy to? How many windmills do we need? How much area do we have to cover?"

Students and professor, sitting in semicircle on lawn outside solar-paneled building

Both Eser and Elsworth believed that statistics on energy use—very easy to attain from the Internet—would be extremely difficult to gather in person. As an experiment, they asked the students to perform an energy audit of the town of Glenwood Springs, Colorado. The expectation: "Man, they're going to fall on their faces," says Elsworth. The students were let loose to gather as much energy information as possible from whatever source they could penetrate—utility companies, officials in the mayor's office, townspeople. They had to figure out the types of energy used in the town, the main suppliers of energy, and ways to make energy use in Glenwood Springs greener. One group went down to the hot springs to gather information: What is the temperature of the springs? What are the flow rates? How much energy could the hot springs supply to the town?

After running around all day, the students returned with lots of data on energy use in Glenwood Springs, proving Eser and Elsworth wrong. "You know, our opinions aren't so correct," says Elsworth. "We can't run around finding data, but students will."

Overall, Elsworth says, "the travel was perfect." The experience, he adds, gave the instructors "a semblance of youth. We covered a lot of ground socially, geographically, and intellectually."

Editor's note: Visit the CAUSE 2000 Web site to see more images of the cross-country energy tour.

Last Updated May 01, 2000