Skip to main content

Green-energy research gives undergrads real-world consulting experience

| Gary Johnson

University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire students assumed the roles of consultants for a real-world client this past year as part of a study identifying green-energy opportunities for Wisconsin manufacturers.

The study was a perfect fit for senior Megan Roehl of Fond du Lac, who is passionate about sustainable and renewable energy, and wants her home state’s manufacturing sector to innovate, adapt and grow.

Roehl, a double major in economics and supply chain management, was among 10 Blugold undergraduates who collaborated with faculty and staff from UW-Eau Claire, UW Oshkosh and UW-Milwaukee during a yearlong study funded by the Tommy G. Thompson Center on Public Leadership. The study group produced a report in July titled “Advancing Wisconsin’s Green Manufacturing Economy” that identified development opportunities for state manufacturers in the wind, solar and biogas industries, as well as energy-storage technologies such as lithium-based batteries.

“This provided applicable skills that will easily transfer to my career, specifically in the teamwork and communication aspect,” says Roehl, the student team lead on the study who assigned work, managing the daily workload and did troubleshooting for the project. “These are all rare experiences for undergraduates that will prove invaluable when looking for jobs and interviewing.”

Roehl has worked since her freshman year on multiple research projects with Dr. Thomas Kemp, professor and chair of the economics department, who collaborated on the economic analysis in the study, including identifying capabilities of Wisconsin’s manufacturing sectors, with Dr. Yan Li, professor of economics, and the undergraduates.

Calling himself an “extremely strong believer” in undergraduate research, Kemp says UW-Eau Claire students need to understand the expectations future employers will have when they start their first jobs. Research like the green-energy study gave students the opportunity to work as consultants for a client.

“I think there is no substitute for having your work be accountable to external constituents,” Kemp says.

Researchers evaluated market conditions and opportunities for Wisconsin manufacturers to further develop products and processes to become involved in the green-energy sector. They tried to identify specific businesses that could participate directly in green-energy manufacturing or in the supply chain. The report was to be distributed to about 200 Wisconsin manufacturers.

Based on students’ research experience, UW-Eau Claire undergraduates’ work ranged from simple data entry to advanced data analysis.

“We talked about what they were doing, why they were doing it and the problems they would encounter,” Kemp says.

The research was completed virtually because of COVID-19, with undergraduate students participating from western Wisconsin, Malaysia and China.

Like Roehl, international student Emerson Ngu had experience collaborating with Kemp on research projects. In the green-energy study, Ngu worked on creating charts and providing other information for an initial report to UW-Eau Claire’s materials science and engineering department for its portion of the project. 

“I joined the green-energy study partially because of its value in research experience and partially because of the potential impact it could make,” says Ngu, a senior economics major and psychology minor from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. “As fossil fuels deplete, I think there is an immediate value in being able to shift our focus into green energy. And I was happy to be part of a bigger cause.”

Ngu said the project taught him a better understanding of how studies work and honed his practical skills such as data collection, presentation and objection management.

“It has given me insight on the flaws and limitations of performing research,” Ngu says. “But from that, it has also taught me how to get creative in research.”

Dr. Matthew Jewell, an associate professor of materials science and engineering, and the principal investigator on the study, pointed to the experiences of sophomore Cameron Johnson when espousing the value of undergraduate research. 

“He educated himself about the green-energy technologies, identified research and development areas within those technologies, and even found funding routes to help those companies advance their ideas,” Jewell says. “This project helped give the students a mature sense of the various green-energy industries, and how manufacturers supporting those industries will need to adapt as the technologies continue to evolve.”

Johnson, a physics major from Elk Mound, found it interesting to learn about manufacturing processes and components used to produce technology such as solar panels.

“It's pretty cool learning the science behind and inner workings of the various energy devices, as well as how they will be evolving over time; this is especially exciting since we will continue seeing more and more of these technologies in the future,” Johnson says. “Also, just getting a glimpse of Wisconsin's manufacturing profile made me better realize the wide scale and importance of the state's industry, and I hope that the report will prove beneficial for Wisconsin businesses to help the energy industry advance.”

Undergraduate researchers like Johnson gained an appreciation for the “depth, breadth and skills of Wisconsin manufacturing” during the study, Kemp says. The economics professor was pleasantly surprised that researchers found state manufacturers embracing new technologies and may be able to evolve their businesses to more green-energy products if markets warrant a transition.

Kemp says undergraduate research projects like the green-energy study are the types of experiences that UW System schools should be providing for students.

“We are the University of Wisconsin, we are the Wisconsin Idea; our institutions extend to the border of this state,” Kemp says. “The extent to which we can help out the community and provide high-quality education to students, we should jump on that.”

In addition to Roehl, Ngu and Johnson, other UW-Eau Claire students who collaborated on the study were Charlotte Cheng, a senior economics and business major from Malaysia; Breanna Fryza, a senior economics major and political science minor from Eau Claire; Hannah Johnston, a senior economics and business major from Hamel, Minnesota; Philip Long, a junior biology and economics major from Waukesha; Jens Lund, an economics and business major from Prior Lake, Minnesota; Zoey Tan, a senior economics and business major from Malaysia; and Will Ullrich, a junior economics and business major from Waukesha.

Photo caption: Dillon Wind Power Project in Palm Springs, Riverside County, California. (Photo credit: Tony Webster)