Hawkish on energy

Students study energy at the source: central and western North Dakota

Energy Hawks

The Energy Hawks pose in front of an oil well. EERC staff loaned them work clothes for the trip. Photo courtesy of EERC.

If you want to learn about energy, go to the source.

Ten “Energy Hawks” did just that.

The UND students – part of a new Grand Challenges research program – spent a week traveling throughout western and central North Dakota to learn about energy challenges and opportunities.

From oil rigs to power plants, infrastructure to law enforcement, the students in the Energy Hawks program saw aspects of energy production that most people never experience.

“This was a chemical engineer’s playground,” said Karthik Balaji, a petroleum engineering doctoral student from Mumbai, India. “I liked discussing real issues and seeing different people’s perspectives.”

“I wanted to do something different than a legal internship,” said John Gonzalez, a third-year law student from Enterprise, Ala. “Thinking like a lawyer is only one aspect. I want to learn how other disciplines solve problems.”

“The trip changed my perception of energy,” said Meghan Taunton, a senior in geological engineering and economics from California, who began living and working in the Bakken in 2012. “I was surprised at how interesting the ethanol plant was. It was neat to see corn crushed and the plant’s efficiency.”

Energy Hawks

Energy Hawks were impressed by the size of wind turbine blades. Photo courtesy of EERC.

Energy Hawks soar

The Energy Hawks program is spearheaded by Tom Erickson, CEO of the UND Energy & Environmental Research Center and Champion of the One UND Strategic Plan Grand Challenge in energy security and environmental sustainability.

The 10 students, who have a variety of majors, are working over the summer at the EERC.

“This is different than most research programs,” said Erickson. “This is a multi-disciplinary group that is looking at energy in a different light. We expect them to identify opportunities we are not currently pursuing at UND.”

The students traveled to Watford City on a Sunday afternoon, then met Monday morning with local officials and learned about the growth of the city – which grew from 1,700 people to 6,000 in just seven years – and impacts on law enforcement, social services and schools. They also met with State Senate Majority Leader Rich Wardner and toured the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park.

Tuesday featured Neset Consulting Service in Tioga, where students learned about oil and gas production, horizontal drilling, and visited Liberty Gas Plant, which collects natural gas from wells.

The highlight was a drilling rig.

“The rig gave us full access,” said Taunton. “We went everywhere.”

Wednesday’s tours included the Great Plains Synfuels Plant and Antelope Valley Station power plant in Beulah, where they learned about using coal to make natural gas, fertilizers, chemical feedstocks and electricity. At the Freedom Coal Mine, the largest lignite mine in the U.S., students were especially impressed by the reclamation process and the size of the draglines. They ended the day with a trip to Garrison Dam, which generates hydroelectric power.

Thursday featured Verendrye Electric Cooperative in Velva, along with one of their solar sites, and Prairie Winds wind farm by Max, where the Energy Hawks were wowed by the size of the turbine blades. In Bismarck, they met with state officials from the Department of Mineral Resources, the North Dakota Pipeline Authority, and Public Service Commission.

On Friday, they toured the Dakota Spirit Ethanol Bioprocessing Facility in Spiritwood, which converts corn into ethanol and produces high protein cattle feed and corn oil. The final stop was Spiritwood Station, a combined heat and power plant, which supplies steam and power to Dakota Spirit.

Energy Hawks

Energy Hawks spent their summer researching energy at the UND Energy & Environmental Research Center. Photo courtesy of EERC.

An energizing experience

After a week of 12-hour days and more than 24 hours of driving, the Energy Hawks were, well, energized.

“I loved the whole experience,” said Yulia Kovaleva, a graduate student in petroleum engineering from Russia. “I saw how energy impacts people, the work force and policy.”

“This program changed my perception,” said Stephanie Weigel, a doctoral candidate in experimental psychology from Cleveland, Ohio. “We are headed in a multidisciplinary direction, and psychology is a bridge discipline. This gave me new experience to work with engineers and scientists, and to expand my knowledge base.”

“I’m more interested in energy than before,” said Jaylen Larson, a UND senior majoring in environmental studies from Grand Forks. “Energy is a key aspect of society and civilization.”

The overall Energy Hawks program and tour was organized and led by Charlene Crocker, EERC research scientist, with logistics by Angie Morgan, EERC administrative assistant.

“This is a unique, once-in-a-lifetime experience,” said Crocker. “We wanted to introduce a new generation of decision-makers to the complexity of energy. This generation, more so than previous ones, is active on social media. They listen to each other and use each other as experts instead of the older generation. So if a peer tells them something, they are more likely to listen.”

Erickson agrees.

“These students will go on to become influencers,” he said. “I’ve already seen it. They are presenting themselves as future leaders in the community, business and energy. Having greater knowledge about energy allows them to make decisions and influence others.”