Penn State SBDC partners with students to provide free energy audits

University Park, Pa. -- To address growing concerns about energy expenses at businesses and nonprofits large and small, Penn State faculty, students and Outreach staff are partnering up to offer free on-site energy assessments for companies across Central Pennsylvania.

Denise Bechdel, environmental consultant at Penn State’s Small Business Development Center (SBDC), has been helping Pennsylvania businesses reduce their environmental impact for years. Now she’s helping reduce her clients’ costs as well.

“In the past, compliance with environmental law was our biggest issue,” she said. “These days, the hot topic is energy efficiency. Everybody wants to save money.”

Since 2002, Bechdel has performed more than 160 free energy and environmental assessments at small businesses across Pennsylvania. She has served 19 counties with legal and practical building maintenance advice, through the SBDC’s Environmental Management Assistance Program (EMAP).

Penn State Energy and Mineral Engineering professor Sarma Pisupati shares Bechdel’s passion and experience in the field. Since fall 2000, he’s taught more than 18,000 students about energy efficiency and its relationship to environmental protection.

“Everybody should have access to this information,” he said.

In 2004, Pisupati began looking for ways to get students out into the real world to put their theories into practice. So he reached out to Bechdel at the SBDC and asked her to provide some training to his honors class  -- EGEE 102H Energy Conservation for Environmental Protection. He also asked her to reach out to her network of clients to set up some practical projects.

“I thought it would be a great opportunity for these students to apply the principles that they learn in class, and at the same time help local small businesses and nonprofit organizations,” Pisupati said.

In 2004 the class assessed two regional businesses -- a manufacturer and a retail store. In the years since, Pisupati’s students have concentrated on Penn State’s University Park campus, assessing buildings like Pollock Commons, Atherton Halls and the White Building.

For Fall 2009, with the cost of energy rising in terms of both dollars and environmental impact, the class’s number of external projects is growing as well. Pisupati’s students will assess three buildings this semester -- a ceramic tile manufacturer, a café bookstore, and the historic Bellefonte Chamber of Commerce.

“Moving forward, we plan to assess at least three buildings each fall and spring semester,” said Bechdel.

The SBDC provides both business contacts and diagnostic equipment to the effort. Collecting and analyzing data on the buildings -- including past energy bills -- the students use tools like the SBDC’s infrared camera to find insulation leaks. Then they assess different strategies for improving energy efficiency and share recommendations with business owners.

For Alexander Cross, one of Pisupati’s former students, the opportunity to perform a real assessment on a real building provided a chance to develop a vital set of practical skills to take into the workplace. Cross, an asset manager with the U.S. General Services Administration, is now using the experience to save energy and money in federal buildings.

“Had I not taken Sarma's class I would have been lost. Especially when it came to the energy conversions and different units of measurement,” Cross said, adding, “I have now become a point of contact for demand management related issues, and this has increased my visibility to others in the agency.”

Even students who don’t plan to pursue a career in an energy-related field have found the practical experience transformative. Penn State junior Michael Yacovelli believes every Penn State student should have the chance to do this kind of assignment.

“This class, and this project in particular,” he said, “did an excellent job of showing that building in an energy efficient manner is not just good for the environment, but for your bank account as well, and that many times it isn't all that costly to make the energy-saving upgrades in the first place.”

“I love to see the students’ faces light up when they realize that they can make a real difference,” said Pisupati. “It’s a real ‘win-win’ for everybody involved.”

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Last Updated November 02, 2009