The race is on for more reliance on renewable energy in the United States over the next decade, and two alumnae are helping to guide the way in Utah and Alaska.
With the ink barely dry on their diplomas, SARAH WRIGHT ’82 and GWEN HOLDMANN ’94 left college with adventure on their minds. The two women don’t know each other — they were Bradley students a dozen years apart — but they share some traits. Fast-forward to 2010, and you’ll find Wright and Holdmann settled with careers and families and homes, not to mention some atypical pets. (Wright keeps five chickens in her Salt Lake City backyard, and Holdmann has sled dogs — 65 of them — that she and her husband use to compete in races.) Besides residing in awe-inspiring parts of the country, the Bradley alumnae have an unusual distinction: both are founding directors of energy centers in their respective states.
Wright is executive director of Utah Clean Energy, which she founded nine years ago. Holdmann was named director of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP) at the University of Alaska last July.
America’s first Earth Day was a significant event in April 1970 — and subsequently the environment became a hot topic, leading students like SARAH WRIGHT ’82 to enter Bradley as environmental science majors.
Although she switched her major to geology, Wright never veered far from her commitment to the environment. “I was fascinated by the concept of time and how long the earth has been in existence, and how short a time humans have been on the planet, and what a big impact we’ve had in such a short time. I became very interested in learning about geologic history,” she says.
Wright moved to Colorado in 1982 and soon landed a job in Utah, working briefly as a geologist in oil and natural gas exploration. Her interest in seeing “industry be as clean and safe as possible” led to a 15-year career as an environmental consultant.
“Then in 2001, I decided that I wanted to use my skill set to help find a more sustainable way to be on the planet. And so I quit my job, not knowing exactly what I would do,” Wright recalls. Later that year, she founded Utah Clean Energy.
Wright now operates the nonprofit group with a staff of nine. Based in Salt Lake City, it is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, foundations that support clean energy, and individual and corporate sponsors.
“There were two studies published last summer that show that we can decrease our business-as-usual energy consumption as a nation by nearly 30 percent through cost-effective technologies. Accomplishing this would significantly reduce our greenhouse gas emissions while providing a net economic benefit,” says Wright.
With an emphasis on smart energy solutions for the long run, her staff advocates for sound energy policies, intervenes in utility regulatory proceedings, and writes testimony and comments about the benefits of energy efficiency and renewable energy. “The public service commissions (in Utah) make decisions on the evidence that’s brought before them — we are the voice for energy efficiency and renewables,” Wright explains.
“Our bottom line is that we want to address climate change and create an energy future that is sustainable for the long term,” says Wright. “Individuals can definitely make a difference, but we also need the policymakers to help lead the way.”
For GWEN HOLDMANN ’94, a family vacation to Alaska planted the seed that she would move to America’s northernmost state after college. Traveling with her three sled dogs, the award-winning Bradley tennis player left Illinois the day after graduation. Her first home in Alaska, a 100-square-foot cabin, had no heat or running water.
Chopping wood to heat the cabin and hauling water gave the physics major plenty of time to think about energy. Holdmann’s lifestyle prompted her to begin Your Own Power Co., providing small-scale home energy systems.
From there, she was hired by Chena Hot Springs, a resort community whose owner wanted to get away from diesel fuel and instead use locally available resources. Holdmann became well known for implementing innovative projects at Chena.
In an interview with Popular Mechanics magazine, she explained, “It is Alaska’s first geothermal plant, and it’s producing electricity from lower-temperature water than any plant in the world.”
Holdmann also helped develop refrigeration for a year-round ice museum at the resort community located near Fairbanks, as well as a geothermal heating system to allow produce to be grown year-round in its greenhouse. Chena’s greenhouse is the only year-round agricultural facility in Alaska. During her 4½ years at Chena, Holdmann engaged researchers at the University of Alaska in several projects.
Last summer, she was named director of the new Alaska Center for Energy and Power. The goal of the center is to foster innovative solutions to Alaska’s energy challenges through research at the university. Holdmann is thrilled to be involved with cutting-edge technologies on a daily basis.
“The university has conducted energy research for a long time, but it wasn’t very coordinated between the various departments and institutes. The purpose of the program is to provide a gateway to energy research within the University of Alaska system, and build capacity in critical needs areas,” Holdmann explains. “We started with no funding and have grown into a substantial organization. Today, we have 40 researchers working on 30 funded projects across a range of technologies. Our goal is to meet the immediate research needs of Alaskan communities and industries, so we’re focusing on solutions that can be implemented in the next three to five years.”
Wind power, biomass, geothermal, and improving efficiency of existing diesel generators that provide electricity to most of the 300-plus isolated Alaskan villages are priorities as research areas, as well as Alaska-specific concerns such as cold weather, isolated electric grids, icing, and permafrost. Holdmann also strives to tie research to the national energy agenda whenever possible.
In her personal life, she and her family now live in a log home they built themselves. Solar panels, a diesel generator, and wood meet its energy needs. Away from home, too, the family manages to stay off the grid. Their Jeep and truck have been converted to run off filtered waste vegetable oil.