All Things Energy

Western’s Institute for Energy Studies prepares students to tackle the world’s toughest climate and energy problems.
Story by Mary Gallagher

WWU student Megan Bellusci has spent the last two years diving into the properties of coal fly ash, a toxic powder released when coal is burned for electricity.

If it’s not managed correctly, coal fly ash is a pernicious industrial waste. But Bellusci and her mentor, Assistant Professor Deborah Glosser, are studying the pollutant to turn it into a resource, as one sign of hope in solving the climate crisis.

It’s just another day in Western’s Institute for Energy Studies, where faculty and students apply science, policy, economics, engineering and many other disciplines to the task of transitioning away from our reliance on greenhouse gas-producing fossil fuels and into a clean energy future.

“I’ve always felt creativity is a great way to get out of our energy problems,” says Bellusci, a senior completing a Bachelor of Science degree in energy science and technology with a minor in energy policy.

Megan Bellusci, wearing safety goggles and blue safety gloves, examines the contents of a sample tube.
Megan Bellusci and Assistant Professor Deborah Glosser are studying the potential for coal fly ash to store concentrated solar power.

Working in Glosser’s lab, Bellusci has been testing different types of coal fly ash for its potential to store concentrated solar power. Such heat-holding “batteries” would not only enable people to rely on solar power long after sundown, but they would put an abundance of pollution to very good use. Many coal-fired power plants in the U.S. store fly ash in dedicated landfills.

“If we were to ramp up solar to maximum capacity, we would have enough of this stuff in landfills to use what we need,” says Bellusci, a San Juan Islands resident who plans to graduate in June. Though she would love to work in research and development after graduation, Bellusci is also drawn to policy work.

“I feel like I’m prepared for so many different parts of the field I could jump into,” she says.

The Institute for Energy Studies was built for this kind of interdisciplinary thinking and ambition. Founded in 2012, Western’s Institute for Energy Studies is the only interdisciplinary undergraduate center in the U.S. devoted to the comprehensive study of the energy system.

The institute’s 25 affiliated faculty include professors from wide-ranging disciplines: chemistry, environmental science, environmental studies, economics, management, political science, anthropology, urban planning, history and engineering. Glosser, for example, holds both a Ph.D. in engineering and a law degree. While students may focus on science and technology, or policy and management, they’ll all graduate with skills and knowledge in both areas.

That’s because to find jobs in the new energy economy – and to truly help drive the global effort to adopt clean energy technology and move away from fossil fuels -- students need more than a scientific understanding of energy, says Director Darrin Magee. They also need to understand the policy, history, economic and social issues surrounding energy production, use and conservation.

“You would be ill-served, as a graduate of the energy science and technology program, to not at least be conversant in that policy and economic context,” he says. “The flipside of that is for those who are majoring in energy policy and management, we want to make darn sure they understand the basic science of energy.

“When they’re talking to the CEO or the CFO, they have to be able to understand and calculate the energy science and the savings to be gained through more efficiency and translate those energy numbers into dollars and cents in a way that makes sense to the decision-makers.”

The degree programs were designed to be “interdisciplinary the right way,” says Joel Swisher, who served as the institute’s director from 2014 to 2023. “That is to say, broad, but also with depth and with focus – and where the focus is not about a particular academic area, but rather with solving the problems of the world, including climate change.”

IES Alumni: Stella Bjånesøy, ’16

Stella Bjånesøy
Stella Bjånesøy

Stella Bjånesøy, ’16, B.A., energy policy and management, is in Norway working as an Innovation Project Manager for G2 Ocean, one of the world’s largest open-hatch shipping operations. Her work focuses on digitalization and sustainability in commercial shipping. Specifically, Bjånesøy is exploring how to incorporate biofuels and other alternative fuels in G2 Ocean’s fleet operations in order to reduce climate impacts and, ideally, costs. After graduating from WWU, she spent a year as an energy program assistant with Sustainable Connections in Bellingham before completing her master’s degree in Iceland.

“Energy relates to basically everything you can think of,” says Bjånesøy, who is originally from Anacortes. “So there’s a lot of opportunities to kind of dabble in a lot of different subjects.”

Looking at the system as a whole “is the only way to really understand energy,” says Swisher, who was a managing director of energy research and consulting for nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute (now RMI) before coming to Western.

The institute’s advisory board, made up of executives in energy sector businesses and nonprofits, insisted students graduate with this big-picture understanding of energy in addition to the needed technical skills, says Swisher. The execs had no problem finding graduates with engineering degrees, who know how electricity works, for example. But they wanted those graduates to also come with an understanding of the complexities of electrical utilities, regulation and markets – knowledge that can save employers months or years of training.

Alumni from the Institute for Energy Studies have gone on to jobs as varied as the curriculum. The institute began enrolling students in its B.A. in energy policy and management in 2016, and in the B.S. in energy science and technology in 2019. Since then, 92 students have graduated with bachelor’s degrees from the IES, and the vast majority are employed in the energy industry, says Magee. This doesn’t include students who have studied energy through concentrations in their engineering or business degrees.

Alums have jobs in energy auditing and management, utility resource planning and analysis, and transportation electrification and decarbonization, he says.

For example, Stella Bjånesøy, ’16, B.A., energy policy and management, went to work as an assistant in the energy program at Sustainable Connections in Bellingham right after graduation. A year later, she was in Iceland earning a master’s degree, and is now in Norway working on sustainability for a major commercial shipping company.

“I was able to directly apply what I learned at Western and actually work directly, right away, in the field,” Bjånesøy says.

The Institute for Energy Studies is also distinctive for its emphasis on energy efficiency, says Swisher, now an adjunct professor at Stanford University. It’s much easier to figure out how to shift to clean energy sources when we’re using less of it overall, he says.

“You get amazing leverage,” he says. “You shrink the footprint of the overall energy system, which makes it easier, cheaper, safer, and above all, faster to then fill with cleaner, cheaper and a more balanced set of resources, including the energy efficiency resource.”

Energy efficiency is at the heart of much of the faculty research at the institute. Assistant Professor of Engineering Nipun Goel, for example, leads the Energy Assessment Program, in which he leads groups of students to study small and medium sized businesses and non-profits to recommend ways to save energy.

Several faculty members have funding from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation to explore different aspects of energy efficiency and housing costs regionally and nationwide. One group is examining the impacts of a Portland, Ore., policy requiring energy efficiency evaluations upon the sale of a home, while another is conducting nationwide surveys of state legislators to learn their attitudes about heating policy and electrification. One faculty member is using the funds to study the environmental gains from electrifying more residential water heaters.

EIS Alumni: Solomon Duke '22

Three workers wearing hard hats and reflective vests work among a tangle of black cables and boxy equipment.
Solomon Duke, center, on a retrofitting project.

Solomon Duke, ’22, B.S., energy science and technology, is an energy project engineer for Northshore, retrofitting data centers to cool their computer servers more efficiently. Rows and rows of computer servers, stacked on top of each other, are like giant rows of heaters, he explains, and they need even more energy to stay cool in order to operate.

“One afternoon of work can sometimes [save] over a million-kilowatt hours a year,” says Duke, enough to meet the annual electricity needs of about 10,000 US homes. “It’s very impactful. There is a lot of energy to be saved. And a lot of water to be saved.” 

Three other IES faculty -- Tim Kowalczyk, Xi Wang and Froylán Sifuentes -- will be involved in workforce development with the newly announced Pacific Northwest Hydrogen Hub, one of seven regional projects nationwide, each eligible for $1 billion in federal funding to kickstart the clean hydrogen industry.      

Associate Professor of Environmental Science Imran Sheikh leads the federally recognized Net Zero Energy Design Track that covers theory and practice of clean and efficient buildings. IES student teams have also been working for years on designing a zero net-energy tiny house, known as Project ZeNETH. Now under construction off campus, Project ZeNETH will give student researchers a chance to monitor and optimize energy usage under different weather conditions.

Indeed, Bellusci, the student working as a research assistant with Glosser on coal fly ash work, says the hands-on experience has been a highlight. Bellusci says she had “zero lab experience” when she started, and is now adept at working with several pieces of lab equipment. She also hopes to have three papers published in scientific journals before she graduates.

Bellusci loves the “creativity and freedom” working in the lab with Glosser and other undergrad research assistants. “She’ll tell us something she’s observed, and ask us, ‘Do you know why this could be?’” Bellusci says. “It’s cool to see how the basic, foundational questions we will ask can almost trigger ideas that you don’t think about as much when you’re at that high a level.”

Bellusci will join Glosser and other undergraduate research assistants at a global conference in Michigan later this month devoted to the study of coal ash. She’s looking forward to sharing their research.

“It’s been really promising, and nobody’s looked particularly at what we’re looking at right now,” Bellusci says. “There’s similar work, but not for our purposes. So, we’re kind of jumping into something new.”

Students and faculty will have even more opportunities to see cutting edge clean tech in action when the Institute for Energy Studies moves into Kaiser Borsari Hall, along with the departments of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. When it’s complete in January 2025, Kaiser Borsari will be a net-zero energy and carbon building, the state’s first publicly funded zero-energy academic building on a university campus.

The building is designed to exceed LEED standards for energy use, carbon and other environmental indicators. Solar panels on more than three-quarters of the roof will power the all-electric mechanical system, and the building is made from local, sustainably harvested wood to reduce the embodied carbon footprint.

But students can learn just as much from studying the older, less green buildings on campus, Swisher points out: “Energy savings in existing buildings is still our largest, cleanest energy resource.”

Tarn Bregman contributed to this story.