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Energy and Environmental Sustainability Gains Momentum
By Dan Armstrong, JMU Public Affairs
A new institute is uniting both some familiar and new faces to guide environmental sustainability research partnerships at James Madison University.
The Institute for Energy and Environmental Sustainability, administered by the office of the vice provost for research and public service, will oversee JMU's involvement with the Virginia Wind Energy Collaborative, Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium, the Valley 25x'25 initiative and Virginia Clean Cities.
“JMU is taking an important step toward solidifying our statewide energy and environmental leadership role by creating a cohesive effort to establish partnerships toward a green economy,” said John Noftsinger, vice provost for research and public service at JMU.
The Virginia Wind Energy Collaborative at JMU empowers communities to investigate wind power feasibility and to navigate governmental regulations to move forward.
A few years ago, Madison Scholar checked in with ISAT faculty member and VWEC co-founder Jonathan Miles about wind energy research that helped lay the groundwork for wind farms throughout the commonwealth.
Today Miles and fellow VWEC member and JMU colleague Dr. Maria Papadakis have moved primarily into the policy and advising realms, empowering local communities to investigate wind power feasibility and to navigate governmental regulations to move forward.
“The work that we’re doing right now still tends to focus more on outreach to communities, to groups, to land owners, different sectors as well as the development of tools and resources that can be used by different stakeholders groups," Miles said. "We're enabling them to become more knowledgeable and better prepared to address wind development before it comes."
The work of VWEC, which includes partnerships with Old Dominion University, Virginia Tech, George Washington University and the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, has helped encourage municipalities across the commonwealth investigate and implement wind power projects.
“Three or four years ago there were only a handful of communities that were looking very seriously at wind, and by a handful I mean you could count on one hand and have a finger or two left over," Miles said. "Now you have dozens of cities and counties that are looking at this and drafting ordinances, that have been approached by wind developers or are already seeing projects in development."
Miles and his colleagues recently have turned their attention toward the coast. The Virginia Coastal Energy Research Consortium was created in 2007 as part of the General Assembly's Virginia Energy Plan. Since then, JMU's delegation has led efforts to map possible locations for offshore wind farms along the coast of the commonwealth.
"We knew all along the potential to generate electricity with wind offshore far exceeds on land. Even if you were to develop all of our good wind resources on land and even if we were to develop those that are off limits, because they are national state parks, wildlife conservatories or otherwise, you couldn’t come close to reaching the capacity that would be accessible by developing offshore wind," said Miles, who served as a fellow at the United States Department of Energy from 2007-2009.
Miles said he is now working to help potential wind farms clear hurdles such as federal and state regulatory processes and difficulties in implementing relatively new and expensive offshore wind farm technology.
"The push was partly instigated by the spike in oil and fuel prices a few years ago. They’ve come down now, and offshore isn’t quite as economically attractive as it was," Miles said. "But the point is that the momentum is now there and the political folks on both sides are supporting this. Right up to the governor’s office they’re acting proactively with our guidance."
Two other government programs have also chosen JMU to help lead their efforts in alternative energy.
One group has put a number on the goal for energy sustainability. The Valley 25x'25 initiative has a goal of the Shenandoah Valley receiving 25 percent of its energy from sustainable sources such as wind, solar, propane and biofuels by 2025.
It's a daunting task, but the multidisciplinary approach JMU emphasizes with its students and faculty can help meet the complex task, said Ken Newbold, director of research development at JMU and head of the Valley 25x'25 project.
"Given the culture of collaboration and commitment to developing solutions to societal problems, JMU is uniquely positioned to lead through research, education and outreach efforts focused on sustainability," Newbold said.
A JMU alumna is also taking advantage of the expertise at JMU to ensure Virginia's energy future.
Clean Cities, a program initiated by the federal government and administered by states, seeks to bring together federal, state and local governments with industry, nonprofit and academic groups to implement sustainable transportation efforts at the municipal level.
Clean Cities Virginia, headed by executive director Chelsea Jenkins ('05), recently announced the establishment of an office at JMU, which primarily helps with research efforts into building a propane auto-gas corridor for the commonwealth.
"We believe this new partnership will broaden our reach and provide access to resources and faculty that will take the organization to the next level," said Jenkins.
The federal government has invested heavily in alternative energy efforts nationwide, and using energy resources that are abundant regionally can help both the environment and the economy.
"Propane and natural gas are resources that are naturally available within the commonwealth," said Chris Bachmann, associate professor of ISAT and director of the JMU Alternative Fuel Vehicle Lab. "If we can maybe utilize resources we have here in our own country, in our own state, maybe that's better than buying oil from far away."
It's one component of a process that will take decades to fully bloom.
"There are no silver bullet solutions to the energy and environmental challenges facing the nation," Newbold said. "It will take a truly multidisciplinary approach to examining the complex science, technology and policy issues to produce achievable answers to address these challenges."