Monday, July 22

Student organization paves path to sustainability with renewable energy projects


Students in the Renewable Energy Association help develop ways to generate sustainable energy on campus. (Sim Beauchamp/Daily Bruin)

Students in the Renewable Energy Association help develop ways to generate sustainable energy on campus. (Sim Beauchamp/Daily Bruin)


A student-run organization aims to develop methods of generating renewable energy to help UCLA become more sustainable.

The Renewable Energy Association (REA), a project-based organization that began in 2014, aims to educate the UCLA community about the importance of renewable energy and sustainability and enable students to develop solutions to environmental issues, said Ryan Condensa, REA president and a third-year chemical engineering student.

“There’s a lot of ways to get involved with sustainability. There’s a lot of ways to get involved with technology,” Condensa said. “REA is really one of the few organizations that combines both.”

REA consists of four teams: the Solar Team, Biodiesel Team, Waste Processing Team and Learn & Teach Team, each working toward a specific goal through specialized projects.

REA’s Solar Team has historically worked to expand the campus’ solar energy capacity. The organization installed solar-powered phone-charging umbrellas on Kerckhoff patio and the Hill in 2017 and doubled Ackerman Union’s solar capacity using a 2015 grant of $205,000 from the Undergraduate Students Association Council’s The Green Initiative Fund.

In the past two years, the Solar Team has shifted its focus to more technical-based projects, including building a solar generator and creating a Python-based model that calculates solar efficiency, Condensa said.

Rashed Alkhlaifat, a third-year materials engineering student and the project lead for the solar generator, said they are currently working toward designing a generator that can power electric cars for Bruin Racing SuperMileage Vehicle, an engineering organization that creates fuel-efficient racing vehicles.

“We thought a good application for our solar generator would be to power their vehicle,” Alkhlaifat said.

The primary projects of REA’s Biodiesel Team include one that involves the conversion of waste cooking oil into biodiesel, and a biogas project that involves partnering with local energy company Southern California Gas Company to test their biogas digester. SoCalGas has also been an important sponsor of the REA, said Donnie Lee, third-year chemical engineering student and REA’s external vice president.

Sidney Poon, a fourth-year civil and environmental engineering student and the project lead for both the biodiesel and biogas projects, said that students primarily did research on biodiesel generation in the beginning of the project to educate themselves about the process.

“We last year starting doing some at-home experiments,” Poon said.

This year, the biodiesel project received $4,600 from The Green Initiative Fund, and plans to expand experimentation with the funding. The project aims to eventually develop a processing plant to convert all campus-used cooking oil into biodiesel.

REA’s Waste Processing Team formed last year and built on the work of the Biodiesel Team, said Condensa.

“Waste Processing started at the beginning of last year as an extension of the bio-processing team. It was supposed to be a composting project, and then we realized there was a whole other section of UCLA sustainability that was a little bit under-addressed,” Condensa said. “And so it became our Waste Processing Team.”

The Waste Processing Team has carried out a number of waste audits since its inception. The team first carried out a campuswide waste audit in November 2017, and has since undertaken smaller audits of campus buildings, such as the La Kretz Center for California Conservation Science, Condensa said.

While REA’s other teams focus more on technical solutions, its Learn & Teach Team engages in direct community outreach. By partnering with institutions such as the UCLA Lab School, LA Family Housing and the WorldSpeak School, REA aims to teach younger students and members of underserved communities about sustainability and renewable energy.

REA eventually plans to create a new team dedicated to wind energy, said Adarsh Balaji, fourth-year biochemistry student and REA’s internal vice president.

“We’ve done a lot of the groundwork necessary,” Balaji said. “The idea of the project leans toward entering the annual (Collegiate Wind) Competition, in which we would be designing a wind turbine.”

REA will co-host Waste Awareness Week, a weeklong series of events that aims to highlight the multifaceted impact of the global waste crisis, from Jan. 14 to Jan. 18. The event is designed to educate students about sustainability and to motivate them to help the University of California meet its goal of zero waste by 2020, Condensa said.

Balaji said he thinks focusing on continuing sustainable practices is more important than focusing on whether UCLA can realistically achieve zero waste by 2020.

“I think that what’s more important than defining this goal by arbitrary years is to really push for the idea that you have to educate the individuals that make up your community,” Balaji said. “That way, it sorts of builds into their daily life. … The long-term effects of that are a lot more important.”

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