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Students explore Brazil’s renewable energy sector

Gen­er­ating renew­able energy from nat­ural resources such as wind, sun­light, and geot­hermal heat could save us from an impending energy crisis, according to Arturo Avila, a second-​​year stu­dent studying civil and envi­ron­mental engi­neering.

“The smartest thing to do is to start thinking about alter­na­tives to fossil fuels so we can have other options to power the globe,” he explained, noting that world’s supply of oil, coal, and gas will even­tu­ally run out.

Avila is one of more than 20 under­grad­uate stu­dents who recently returned from a Dia­logue of Civ­i­liza­tions pro­gram in Sao Paulo, Brazil, one in which a cross-​​disciplinary crew of biology, engi­neering, anthro­pology, and inter­na­tional affairs majors explored the country’s robust renew­able energy sector. According to research con­ducted by the Energy Research Corp., renew­able energy accounts for more than 85 per­cent of Brazil’s domes­ti­cally pro­duced electricity.

Courtney Pfluger, an assis­tant aca­d­emic spe­cialist in the Col­lege of Engi­neering, led the month­-long dia­logue, which dove­tailed with Northeastern’s focus on dis­cov­ering solu­tions to global chal­lenges in health, secu­rity, and sus­tain­ability. “The stu­dents can take the knowl­edge of how renew­able ener­gies work and the poli­cies that helped imple­ment them in Brazil and hope­fully use that to encourage the growth and engi­neering of these tech­nolo­gies in the U.S.,” Pfluger said.

The dia­logue com­prised site visits to power plants of the hydro­elec­tric, solar, and land­fill gas variety as well as courses on alter­na­tive energy tech­nolo­gies and Brazilian cul­ture. Stu­dents learned how to speak basic Por­tuguese, vis­ited his­tor­ical museums, and even tried Capoeira, a Brazilian mar­tial art com­bining ele­ments of dance, music, and acrobatics.

Each stu­dent was required to blog about the expe­ri­ence. In one post, fourth-​​year anthro­pology major William Wilson weighed the pros and cons of alter­na­tive energy sources from a social, envi­ron­mental, and eco­nomic per­spec­tive. Hydro­elec­tric dams, he wrote, often dis­rupt migra­tory fish cycles and lead to ground­water con­t­a­m­i­na­tion. “But these seem to be the ‘small-​​scale’ impacts,” he added. “Wor­ries of larger mag­ni­tudes include inter­border dis­rup­tion of water flow, which can inevitably lead to serious multi­na­tional tur­moil. Then there’s the ques­tion of who gets the elec­tricity: Does it go to the indus­trial sector or to the res­i­den­tial sector?”

Learning about renew­able energy in Sao Paulo con­vinced both Wilson and Avila to make sus­tain­ability a key com­po­nent of their future work. Avila plans to return to Brazil to com­plete an inter­na­tional co-​​op in the renew­able energy sector. Wilson wants to attend grad­uate school to study urban­iza­tion in devel­oping coun­tries. “You wonder how we’re sup­posed to pro­vide elec­tricity and water for 9 bil­lion people when you hear that the demand for energy will double by 2030,” he said.

— By Jason Kornwitz

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