Thursday, July 16, 2009

Professor Beth Parks – On Energy Efficiency

Beth Parks – Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy
Interview by Gergana Mouteva '09, Colgate Sustainability Intern (SI)

SI: What does sustainability mean to you and how does it change the way you live?

Beth: For me, sustainability is making sure that the people after us have as good a chance at happiness as we do now. We may not leave them exactly the same resources we have now, but the combination of resources and technology should be enough to satisfy their needs.

I think that the biggest steps toward sustainability will come through legislation – carbon taxes, alternative energy development, etc. But that doesn’t exempt us from trying to do our share now. I try to bike instead of driving. I biked up to campus today. My home is energy efficient – well-insulated, air-sealed, and with efficient appliances. And since it is summer now, I enjoy lots of local foods, saving transportation fuel. Practicing sustainability definitely changes my lifestyle –in a good way!

SI: What project are you involved with right now?

Beth: I teach a CORE class on Energy and Sustainability. I work with students on energy efficiency and also learning about alternative energy. We solve real problems such as determining heat leakage in Colgate dormitories or calculating the payback time for a wind turbine on campus. We also get hands-on experience in retrofitting a home for energy efficiency. It is much better when students can work directly on such problems. It makes it much easier to understand energy usage and efficiency when it refers to things on a personal level.

In my lab, I’m working to develop a tool that will allow homeowners to measure the insulation in their homes. Several students, including most recently Clayton Brown ’09, have worked on this project. Colgate supported the cost of applying for a preliminary patent, and I’ve applied for a grant that would support the rest of the patent costs. I hope that this can develop into an inexpensive tool that will help homeowners learn whether they need more insulation.

SI: What are the reactions that you see in students when you teach the Energy and Sustainability class?

Beth: Many Colgate students have strong interest in sustainability — they want to do something to help! I try to convince students that it’s important to actually look at the numbers in order to make sure that our actions do indeed save energy, and put our biggest efforts where the biggest gains can be made. I hope to channel students’ interest in productive ways.

SI: What advice would you give to Colgate students and community members?

Beth: Look beyond the small steps. Small steps are wonderful – carrying your own water bottle, switching off the light, etc. – but we have to look at the bigger things. When you graduate, choose where to live based on walkability or access to public transportation, and make sure your house is energy efficient. Choose the smallest house and the smallest car you can live with. It is these big changes that make a big difference.

  • Click here to learn how Beth's students get first hand practice experience in sustainability.
  • Read Beth's profile.
  • Click here to share your personal sustainability story!

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