Red Deer College leading the way in alternative energy learning opportunities
Model it. Showcase it. Train in it.
This is the philosophy behind Red Deer College’s Alternative Energy Lab, the college’s latest investment in the alternative energy space.
“Students are very much interested and invested in climate change and clean energy systems,” said Joel Ward, president and CEO of RDC. “They want post-secondary institutions that will be able to support and model clean energy and clean energy technologies.”
The Alternative Energy Lab is a 5,274 square foot virtual and physical space where students can learn about alternative energy systems by experimenting with and researching different technologies, and conducting simulations of working energy systems. Approximately 1,000 students from programs like engineering and instrumentation technology, carpentry and electrician will benefit from the new lab space each year.
“It is a teaching and learning space where students have hands-on learning experience to build familiarity and confidence with alternative energy systems that they will likely to encounter in their careers,” said Ward.
In 2017, Red Deer College received – and later matched – a $5 million grant from the federal government’s Post-Secondary Strategic Investment Fund, which allowed them to begin construction on the building.
The lab has been designed to simulate systems associated with alternative energy production – such as small-scale solar or combined heat and power units – giving students a chance to install, operate and maintain various systems in a real-world setting.
For example, solar panels installed on the roof of the lab allow students to collect data, compare panel technologies and determine the most efficient, clean energy solutions for communities.
According to Ward, the research gathered in the lab will have far-reaching benefits. It will function as an impartial resource for alternative energy information in central Alberta and increase awareness around some of the latest technologies, while using findings to educate and support communities and businesses interested in investing in alternative energy solutions.
“Many of the businesses are looking for alternative energy [technologies] in their own industry, but they aren’t quite sure what it is and what the return on their investment will be,” said Ward, who added they are currently doing a study on the angles of solar panels to optimize for the sun in central Alberta.
Ward said the college has also designed the lab as a flexible space, because technology in the alternative energy space is constantly evolving. Much of the equipment in the lab is on wheels, which gives them the ability to adapt to new systems as they emerge, and ensures any teaching and learning within the lab stays current.
Further, RDC partners with experts in the field to facilitate public forums, as well as education for businesses and members of the community around some of the more sustainable energy options available.
These forums will help answer common questions, such as what happens when snow accumulates on solar panels and the return-on-investment if businesses decide to move away from fossil fuels and into clean energy.
Red Deer College’s Alternative Energy Initiative
The Alternative Energy Lab is just one component of Red Deer College’s greater Alternative Energy Initiative, which supports a five-year goal to become a net-zero campus powered by sustainable resources.
“We want to be the go-to organization in central Alberta and beyond, not just for demonstrating these new technologies, but incorporating it into our own plan to be net-zero in the next five years,” said Ward.
To reach that goal, the college is tapping into three key technologies.
First, RDC has installed a natural-gas powered combined heat and power unit that produces hot water to generate electricity. The extra heat produced is then tied into the existing hot water distribution system to heat various locations on campus.
Second, the college has installed 4,195 solar panels across the main campus, making it the largest institutional solar array in Canada, according to Ward.
Third, RDC has replaced its low efficiency lighting with high efficiency LED lighting, reducing its electricity consumption.
Through these programs, according to Ward, the college is already offsetting almost 2/3 of its electricity demands, creating its own 9,200-megawatt hours per year in electricity savings, and decreasing its heat and power costs by almost $1 million.
Because RDC often produces more energy than it can use, the college is also looking to incorporate battery storage technology in order to store the energy until it’s needed.
Additionally, the college has begun working with Calgary-based Eco-Growth Environmental to enable them to convert organic waste into biomass fuel, which will assist in powering the campus’s gasification boiler systems.
“We believe it is a moral imperative to support the diversification initiative of our province and the world we are leaving our kids,” said Ward.
“This ongoing conservation strategy not only saves money, but it demonstrates that we are serious about alternative energy and supporting strategies to mitigate climate change.”