Renewable energy research is being underfunded at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, while students struggle to find jobs elsewhere amidst the upcoming federal budget cuts.
Radiochemistry Ph.D. candidate, Vanessa Sanders, might have to go elsewhere to start working after she graduates, lack of employment opportunities and a small budget in research funding force her to move out of Nevada.
“There’s really nothing in Nevada as far as careers for me” Sanders said. This is the situation that many UNLV students face each year after they graduate, especially when they enter the renewable energy research program at the Harry Reid Center for Environmental Studies.
While companies are starting to get interested in solar energy as a source for renewable energy, such as 1 Sun Solar Companies, a Las Vegas company founded in 2009; there are no incentives from companies to educational centers in research projects.
Money for research is coming only from research grants, “we get those grants and we have to do the research that is specified in the research grant, but there are no research grants with the companies. They are not interested in that,” said Dr. Oliver Hemmers, the UNLV managerial point of contact for the Nevada Renewable Energy Consortium and the statewide task leader for solar energy research projects within the consortium. “They look in the engineering side, technology, development, rather than the research; they want to optimize the system maybe, but don’t do any basic research. There’s no overlap with what we do,” he added.
Dr. Hemmers also said that there is no link with the research programs and solar energy companies for student internships.
Louise Helton, vice-president of 1 Sun Solar Companies, said that if people want to help diversify the economy they should at least look at other sister states that found themselves in a “tough spot” and have been able to get out of it. She later added that one of the key ingredients to diversify the economy was working with the universities. “We are working with the university through the Renewable Energy Department; we are also working with the legal department. We are working with Bret Birdsong and Matt Knepper who is a student at the school of law,” she said. “We don’t have a renewable energy law emphasis that you can get a degree on, but the kids who are interested in renewable energy have formed their own organization so they are studying it on their own, and they are working with us in this Sustainable Energy Coalition.”
The Nevada Sustainable Energy Coalition was created to support the goals set forth by a report by the Brookings Mountain West that explores opportunities to diversify Nevada’s economy. It develops policies and encourages investment in green businesses to advance energy efficiency. The coalition plans to have a statewide legislative forum this March in which they will push a change in the policies of the state in renewable energy and they will continue to work through the 2013 state legislative session.
“That affects only the companies; then again, we don’t get any money.” Hemmers said. “It might be a benefit for the companies to develop a project in the state, nevertheless there’s no money for research necessarily attached to that. They might still be more attracted to come here. They might still look for jobs for people that qualify for the jobs that they offer, so students still have a prospective to work for those companies, but on the research side, we still don’t have an overlap. We don’t make money here. We need to get research funding,” Hemmers added.
Despite all the efforts by the Nevada Sustainable Energy Coalition to diversify the economy in the state, the Harry Reid Center for Environmental research is still dealing with the same problem, funding for research in renewable energy. “We had a project for a solar tower development, but again there was no funding for that so we stopped the development. Nobody wants to put money into that; you can’t do the work either.” Hemmers said.
Another way of funding for the Harry Reid Center for Environmental research is through the federal research grants. They have to win a proposal for research. “It’s a process. You write a proposal, you see if you get funded, and if not, then you don’t. Only one or two proposals out of 10 get funded.”
Hemmers went on to say that there are no partnerships to fund research because companies don’t have a budget for that, “the only research money you can get is mostly from federal research, agencies like the national science foundation, places for that, that have the research money, our operation is self-funded, we cannot rely on any support on anybody. It’s very uncertain. It’s very stressful for the people working here because you never know if you are still going to have a job in 6 months or a year.”