Teaching Sustainable Applications

The NAIT Alternative Energy Technology Program

19, Dec, 2016

The way to be successful in any endeavour, particularly post-secondary education, is to be forward-thinking. To that end, five years ago NAIT launched its Alternative Energy Technology (ALTE) Program under the leadership of Academic Chair, Dr. James Sandercock. How does this exemplify forward thinking? We’re glad you asked. During the peak of an oil & gas boom, the easiest choice is to ride the petroleum wave without giving thought to what else might be on the horizon. As is typical of Alberta’s outstanding post-secondary technology education providers, NAIT doesn’t believe in taking the easy way.

Reading the tea leaves, the institution’s leadership recognized an emerging trend in alternative energy and developed a program to train the technologists the sector will need if it is to grow safely, responsibly, and reliably. In 2011, the inaugural intake class had one spot available for every five applicants. That ratio is now eight to one, a sixty-percent application increase in only five years. Part of that is likely attributable to the natural maturation of the program’s brand; mostly, though, the popularity can be explained by the growing relevance of trained alternative energy technologists to a burgeoning market focused on solar, wind, cogeneration, geothermal sources, liquid biofuels, and increased energy efficiency. This market trend has been bolstered recently by incentives and initiatives announced by the governments of Alberta and Canada, as they seek to spur the development of environmentally-responsible technologies.

“Until recently, Alberta was the only jurisdiction in North America not to have implemented an energy-efficiency program,” explains Dr. Sandercock. “That’s just one example of the evolving landscape awaiting our graduates. You could say that the current regulatory and economic environments are supporting a growing need for sustainable energy approaches; this, in turn, helps validate our program.”

Further evidence of the program’s growing relevance is that when the ALTE Program launched, instructors were preparing graduates to work on small-scale projects—effectively arming them for careers in a niche industry. That mindset is changing rapidly, as can be seen in the scope and scale of the fourth-semester capstone projects the 2017 graduating class is beginning to prepare. This includes planning micro-grid systems for:

  • The island nation of Cape Verde (That’s correct…they’re going to design an alternative energy generation system for an entire—albeit small—country. How’s that for an instant resume boost?);
  •  An isolated Alberta community seeking to reduce its diesel-fuel dependence; and,
  • An urban centre being planned by an Alberta-based developer.

These students are following in the footsteps of alumni whose capstone work product has already been quite remarkable, providing solutions for sponsors in the public, private, and not-for-profit sectors. Consider last year’s ATCO-supported initiative: Students were challenged to design an off-grid solar-battery system capable of powering one of the utility’s remote telecommunications stations.

When ATCO approached Jim Sandercock, he liked the learning opportunity presented by replacing the Saddle Hills facility’s fossil fuel-powered generator with solar energy technology. The students were involved in helping ATCO design a 75kW photo-voltaic (PV) array and a 250 kWh battery system, an elegant solution for a remote facility. The students’ work on the project contributed to saving time and resources, while aligning with ATCO’s commitment to environmental sustainability. 

The ALTE faculty is pleased with the enthusiasm and ingenuity their students displayed in solving the ATCO Saddle Hills challenge. Among various considerations was the potentially detrimental impact of snow accumulation on the proper functioning of the remote solar power system. The team applied what they had learned in the previous three semesters and found inspiration in one of their teaching tools, an array installed on a NAIT rooftop (below). Dr. Sandercock explains, “Sometimes renewables are discounted because we lack performance data for the Canadian context. In conjunction with various partners we tested the effect of snow on solar-electricity generation at various angles. When we compared the constantly-cleared PV modules to the un-cleared modules, we found that, even at a shallow angle (3/12), snow reduced annual production by only five percent. This information was an essential part of accurately modeling the energy required for the Saddle Hills system.”

Teaching the ability to develop useful applications for real clients is the hallmark of a good technology program and NAIT’s Alternative Energy Technology offering is no exception. In fact, the importance of the capstone element is such that program faculty are about to pilot a 4th semester that can be delivered off-campus, allowing students to work on their final projects outside Alberta’s Capital Region. After all, work is where you find it and students will certainly benefit from knowing there are times you must go where the client needs you most.

All in all, it’s obvious our future alternative energy technologists are receiving the education they need to hit the ground running—and they’ll have to, given NAIT’s latest stats indicate that 100% of them are likely to find work in their field upon graduation.

Work at ATCO's Saddle Hills Facility (photo credit: ATCO)


Using angled solar arrays to test the effects of snow on solar-electricity generation.


To view the original article in the online issue of Technology Alberta, please click HERE.