Q&A: Exploring Sustainable Energy Engineering with SEE program director Kevin Oldknow

August 29, 2018

This feature was orginally published on SFU News.

What is Sustainable Energy Engineering (SEE) and why is this field important?

Sustainable Energy Engineering involves the development of solutions for the harvesting, storage, transmission and use of energy, with careful consideration of economic, environmental, societal and cultural implications. It is increasingly clear that the solutions we develop and deploy for energy systems will only be viable over the long term if they are designed in a genuinely interdisciplinary way.

The design process must consider not only the technologies involved, but also the ways in which they fit into the wider context of existing infrastructure, policy and regulatory frameworks, ecological systems, and cultural realities. As a society we are becoming more aware of the urgent need for sustainable energy solutions, and these can only be realized if we provide people with the education and experience to become leaders in the field.

How does SFU’s new SEE program compare to other cleantech/sustainability programs in Canada?

The emerging curricula relating to energy systems and sustainable energy across Canada indicates our readiness as a society to invest the time, effort and resources necessary to arrive at better solutions. The SEE program is a part of this momentum. Currently, the majority of options for undergraduate students involve collections of elective courses within existing, traditional engineering programs.

There are a very small number of programs in North America specifically dedicated to sustainable energy engineering that also have a strong emphasis on interdisciplinarity. The SEE program will be the first of this kind in Western Canada.

Why create an engineering program that also embeds entrepreneurship, economics and policy studies?

Before designing and creating the SEE program, we spent significant time and effort consulting with key stakeholders from industry, government and academia. We heard clearly that learning how to develop and deploy a specific solution in a specific geography isn’t enough. Students also need to develop an appreciation for the ways in which resources, infrastructure, policy and regulatory frameworks vary across global geographies, and how to go about understanding these factors whenever they are facing a new design challenge. Additionally, the emerging cleantech sector, particularly in B.C., is highly entrepreneurial.

For students to emerge with the momentum they need to become leaders in the field, it is important that they understand the essence of the entrepreneurial initiative and the realities dictating the success or failure of start-ups, as well as unconventional projects within larger enterprises.

What career paths could students take after graduating?

Students from the SEE program can pursue a range of professional career opportunities related to the efficient harvesting, conversion, distribution, and use of energy. Sectors include wind, solar, geothermal, hydro-electric power, fuel cell, gas turbine, biomass, transportation, manufacturing, and oil and natural gas.

Opportunities will also include current practical professions such as heating, ventilation and air conditioning, and energy systems in commercial and residential buildings. Other career paths include working as consultants and entrepreneurs, or pursuing continued education and research at the graduate level.

How will the program help meet the critical needs of industry?

When we surveyed companies in the cleantech industry across Canada, we found that about 50 per cent of respondents felt existing engineering programs are producing graduates with the skills to meet their needs. But the other 50 percent said they are experiencing a significant gap between the education provided and what new employees need to make meaningful contributions and ultimately succeed in the cleantech sector.

Part of the need is technical, with energy systems representing quite a unique cross-section of engineering disciplines. Much of the need, however, is associated with the interdisciplinarity and systems-thinking that we are aiming to provide in the SEE program.

Why is it important to have a program like this in B.C.?

All indicators suggest that B.C. is poised to continue its trajectory as a leader in cleantech. Between 2010 and 2016 there was a 35 per cent increase in the number of cleantech companies in B.C. and a 20 per cent increase in the number of people employed by these companies. Average wages and total investment in the sector increased by more than 20 per cent. In order to sustain this momentum, the B.C. cleantech industry needs a strong pipeline of well-educated engineering graduates who can meet industry needs and become leaders in the field

How will this program impact the community?

Throughout their studies, students in the SEE program will engage in meaningful, team-based projects that emphasize the integration of social, environmental and economic considerations into their energy engineering practice.

One of the program’s goals is to graduate globally minded, self-aware, technical professionals equipped with the skills, knowledge and attitudes to create and lead change in a future world. SEE graduates will have the skills to address some of the most pressing and challenging problems facing society today, including the sustainable use of energy, and interrelated availability of clean water and food for a growing global population.

How many undergraduate and graduate students will the program accept?

Applications for the SEE undergraduate program will open on Oct.1, 2018, and classes will begin in September 2019. The program will begin with capacity for 80 first-year students arriving directly from high school, and 40 second-year students who are transferring from other post-secondary programs and institutions. The program will require the equivalent of four years of full-time study, and we expect to see the first SEE students to graduate in spring, 2022.

In addition to the undergraduate program, we will be introducing master’s (MASc) and doctoral (PhD) graduate programs. We plan to launch these research-focused programs in fall 2019.

Ultimately, the program will have capacity for 320 undergraduate students and 120 graduate students.

The program will be hosted in a new building currently under construction on the Surrey campus. What is unique about this building, and what resources/equipment will students have access to?

The new building has been designed to function as an innovative educational space, as well as a living lab for students and researchers. The SEE building features state-of-the-art teaching labs and classrooms, as well as a project lab infrastructure that includes a machine shop, 3D printing and laser cutting lab, printed circuit board and microfabrication lab, and a transportation project lab.

Building systems to enhance sustainability include advanced systems for air quality monitoring and ventilation, heating and cooling, energy recovery, and electrical efficiency. Regionally sourced construction materials also enhance sustainability and efficiency. With all of these elements, students will experience the building as a living lab in which to learn and explore.

There are also several features that encourage students to include sustainable practices in their daily lives. These include secure bike storage and change facilities for cyclists, bike lane access to the building, dedicated parking stalls for electric and car-pool vehicles, and proximity to Skytrain and bus services.

What is your area of expertise and what is your motivation to lead this program?

While I have worked in a few different industry segments over the past 20 years, my main area of professional practice and research for the past 15 years has been in the transportation sector, specifically in the area of cleantech applications for railway systems. I have been involved in a range of domestic and international projects, in both freight and passenger rail systems, aimed at controlling conditions at the wheel/rail interface to minimize energy consumption and maximize the lifespan of railway infrastructure.

In addition to technical work and industrial research, I have worked at an executive level in operations management and strategic leadership. This has given me a substantial amount of experience and perspective that I think will help in bringing the SEE program to fruition and making it relevant to a wide range of stakeholders.

What I find most exciting about the program is the prospect of helping students to develop a base of knowledge and experience that will lead them into genuinely satisfying and rewarding careers with a sense of purpose that resonates with their personal values and goals. Also, when I speak with my own children, I’m proud to tell them that I’m doing my part to help find a way toward better energy-systems solutions.

Why is SFU well-positioned to offer this program?

SFU is an ideal place for the SEE program. Members in several faculties are already producing world-class research in alternative energy conversion, power electronics, hydrogen systems and materials, energy systems modeling, economics, policy and infrastructure. Additionally, SFU has a vibrant landscape of sustainability initiatives and organizations that are weaving sustainable thinking and practices into the community’s mindset.

The university has a strong history of innovative programs, and a culture that embraces change and collaboration. Given SFU’s central focus on community engagement, there is every opportunity for the program to have a real and meaningful impact.