Last year, Bucknell University undergraduates Reed Leong '19 and Megan Martzolff '19 signed up for Professor Andrew Stuhl's course Environmental Problems–Sustainable Futures. By the summer, Leong and Martzolff had teamed up with the environmental studies professor to help the community surrounding Bucknell sustain its own quality of life in the future.
"From the beginning of summer, I've been emailing the borough council," said Leong. "The first time I got a response, I thought, 'this is so cool.' It's been a real-life experience in terms of what I'll do with an environmental studies degree."
Each of the environmental studies majors was looking for an opportunity to build real-world experience in their field over the summer break, when Stuhl invited them to play a major role in his plan to bring solar energy to local recreational facilities. With support from a Fulbright Canada grant, Stuhl wants to help the Buffalo Valley Recreation Authority (BVRA) install solar panels at three locations at and nearby the Lewisburg Community Pool, helping this community asset maintain fiscal sustainability for years to come, as well as offering an environmental good.
"The goal is to install solar panels at public spaces in Lewisburg, but it's also a public awareness campaign around the benefits of renewable energy," Stuhl said. "Along with the benefit of moving from a non-renewable to a renewable energy source comes the educational benefit of users of those spaces learning why renewable energy is good for our environment and our health, and at a much broader scale for the development of a green economy."
Their educational outreach efforts began over the summer at a series of five informational community meetings about the project led by Stuhl, Leong and Martzolff. The students also helped analyze the costs and benefits of the project, which the team has dubbed Greening Lewisburg, and assisted the borough in applying for a grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to purchase and install the panels.
"For the feasibility report we're looking at potential sites to put the panels, and at different designs," Martzolff said. "We're looking at how big they would be, how much energy you would get from them, and how we would connect all of them together."
Stuhl was able to get the project off the ground thanks to a Fulbright Canada-RBC Eco-Leadership grant, an award offered to current and former recipients of a Fulbright fellowship through the Canada-U.S. Fulbright Program to engage in environmental action in their communities. He applied for the grant based on a 2016 Fulbright Visiting Research Chair that took him to Ottawa, where he did archival research related to environmental issues in the Canadian Arctic.
While his Fulbright grant will not cover the cost of the solar installation, Stuhl and his students noted that the expertise and volunteer hours they've committed will aid the recreation authority in applying for its own state grant.
"Part of the grant is a match," Martzolff explained. "If the BVRA raises at least $20,000 in cash or other equivalents, such as volunteering, the state will match it up to a total grant amount of $60,000. Our work will definitely help with the grant application."
Saving money, building community
The team estimates that solar panels at the pool alone would generate about $3,400 of power annually, which would take a significant bite out of the pool's $10,000-per-year electric bill, its largest single operating expense. Stuhl said it would help the BVRA's bottom line at a time when community pools across Pennsylvania and the country are closing, mainly due to rising operating costs. He noted that the community pool in nearby Watsontown was running a deficit of nearly $75,000 per year before it was shuttered in 2008.
"As we look toward the future of community recreation, we think it will be innovative projects like this that allow us to maintain the pool as a community resource for many years to come," said Stacey Sommerfield, executive director of the BVRA. "We've been very interested in bringing solar power to the pool for a while. Now, because of the work of Professor Stuhl and his students, this dream may become a reality."
Stuhl added that the relationship forming between the recreation authority and Bucknell lays the groundwork for future collaborations, offering opportunities for both hands-on learning and community improvement. It builds on the outreach of the environmental studies senior seminar, a project-based capstone course that has recently helped develop rain and food gardens in nearby communities, he said.
"We have a lot of resources on campus to talk about people's relationship with their environment, and of course our students study that relationship from all different disciplines," Stuhl said. "But one of our commitments is also to get students off campus, to use their knowledge in service of the greater good of Union County and the Susquehanna Valley."