A group of 20 college graduates and soon-to-be graduates from around the state recently traveled California to explore clean energy options in a process they called “learn by touring.”
The California Energy Tour was a five-day event planned by four Cal Poly alumni with a goal of exposing young professionals to the realities of the California energy sector.
“It’s young people that really need to learn this stuff because they’re going to be the ones getting in there and changing the system,” said tour co-organizer Chad Worth, a 2009 Cal Poly graduate and founder of the Empower Poly Coalition — a club dedicated to sustainability on campus.
Starting in Sacramento and ending in Sonoma, the group stopped at 17 sites including research institutions, private consultant firms and community-based non-profit organizations.
Sticking true to their values, the group kept their trip as green as possible, traveling largely by mass transportation and eating mostly vegetarian food, offsetting the remaining carbon for anyone who drove.
“It was really inspiring to get so many different people together,” Worth said. “It showed how much desire people have to learn about this stuff.”
Nancy Cole, a city and regional planning Cal Poly graduate and co-organizer of the tour, said the role of students in the future of the state and nation is to fill the gaps of disconnect between research agencies, public and private industries and legislature.
“‘Interdisciplinary’ and ‘multidisciplinary’ are buzzwords in our generation,” she said. “Coming together as a group and asking these questions has helped us understand much better than we could as individuals.”
After traveling with Cal Poly’s Empower Poly Coalition on an energy tour in Europe last spring, Cal Poly students Worth, Eric Veium, Cole and Neil Bulger had the idea for the tour.
“We don’t need to go halfway across the world to learn about all this cool stuff,” Worth said.
Using existing networks to recruit a group for the trip, the students raised about $4,500. About half of the attendees were Cal Poly students; one participant was from Nevada and the rest were from other parts of California.
An objective of the trip was for students to see firsthand the interconnections between non-profits, for-profits, government agencies, regulatory agencies and the legislature.
They visited organizations like CityFirst — a program that enables homeowners to install solar energy systems with no upfront cost — and Green For All, an organization that trains green-collar workers to perform energy efficient trades.
Tour mentor Ken Smokoska, who works in the clean energy vehicles industry and is a member of the California Sierra Club, said the most valuable takeback from the trip was visiting Better Place, the world’s leading electric vehicle provider.
Worth described the company as “the next household name” that could become as innovative an icon as Google
“It’s exciting to see student leadership empowering the community,” Smokoska said.
Smokoska said the exchange of information went both ways; the students educated professionals and vice versa.
“The companies that were receiving this tour went, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool what you guys are doing. This is very effective,'” Smokoska said. “That exchange was hugely valuable.”
Veium, a Cal Poly graduate and tour organizer, agreed that empowering the community is key.
“Our work is most effective at the local level,” Veium said. He gave the example that individuals may be opposed to certain sustainable technologies, but when it’s a community effort rather than a government mandate, there’s less resistance.
The four organizers, Worth, Veium, Cole and Bulger, plan to keep working together in the future, taking advantage of new policies and standards on the clean energy frontier.
“We want to create a business that’s focused around this realization of creating a model affecting energy both in the home and on a community scale,” Veium said.
But that’s a project for the future.
For now, they’re working to make sure the tour can continue in upcoming years under leadership of this year’s participants.
“Energy, water — these are going to be the defining issues of our generation that will either make or break the future of California,” Cole said.
Over the next weeks, the four organizers will develop a template to ensure that the budget, Web site, contacts and timeline can stay in place for future, similarly-themed tours.
“We’ve got to bring a lot of people on board,” Cole said. “Energy is a hot topic right now. We’ve got to get the best and the brightest involved.”