Universities Partner with National Parks to Give Historic Sites Energy Makeovers

RIT Professor stewards the University-National Park Energy Partnership Program




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An idea Rochester Institute of Technology professor James Winebrake had more than a decade ago while working on energy issues at Shenandoah National Park in Virginia has solidified into a respected national program partnering universities with national parks to identify ways to make historic sites energy efficient and models of renewable energy use.

Winebrake recently won a $350,000 grant from the National Park Service to continue fostering new energy-related projects through the University-National Park Energy Partnership Program (UNPEPP), which he co-founded in 1997 with Terry Brennan, National Parks Service Green Energy Parks Program Coordinator.

During the last decade, UNPEPP has leveraged nearly $1.2 million for energy projects. The program has funded nearly 70 projects at more than 30 of the 375 national parks, with the average project costing $15,000.

“The goal is to improve the environmental quality of national parks, reduce energy bills and to educate future energy professionals,” says Winebrake, professor and chair of RIT’s Science, Technology and Society/Public Policy Department and UNPEPP director. He also is one of six members on the National Park Service’s Working Group on Energy and Sustainability.

“Our nation’s parks are absolute gems,” he says. “Yet, they contain old buildings and equipment that waste a lot of energy and, therefore, money. These projects uncover energy savings opportunities and help parks implement renewable energy measures that would otherwise be out of reach.”

Improving energy efficiency at national parks conserves natural resources and saves tax dollars, Winebrake says. At the same time, students gain valuable experience conducting energy audits and data analysis, and finding ways to use alternative energy sources such as solar energy and wind turbines. UNPEPP has funded proposals from all over the country, including projects in Alaska and Hawaii. Last year, an RIT student worked with professor Carl Lundgren to conduct energy audits and identified energy conservation measures for the Women’s Rights National Historic Site in Seneca Falls.

Other UNPEPP-funded projects have included:

  • The design and installation of a hybrid solar panel system at the Redwood National and State Parks by students from Humboldt State University
  • The installation of a wind turbine and solar panel array at the Wright Brothers National Memorial by students from North Carolina State University
  • A solar panel upgrade at Yellowstone National Park by students from South Dakota State University
  • An ongoing assessment of stand-alone renewable energy sources at Alcatraz Island, part of the Golden Gate National Recreational Area, including solar power, biodiesal and a tidal turbine by students at University of Washington.

“Most of these projects have a public education component, so there are interpretative materials developed to go along with projects if they are visible to the public,” Winebrake says. “If there’s a solar panel that people can see, there are plaques explaining how they work.”

The National Park Service will celebrate its centennial in 2016, and sustainability in the parks will be a major theme.

“We fit in nicely,” Winebrake says. “They will be coming to us to try to learn to effectively implement sustainability at national parks.”