By Alicia Wrigley-Gailey, Sustainability Resource Center
As one of the five buildings on campus featuring a solar power installation, the Spencer Fox Eccles Business Building is already one of the greener structures at the U. But by the end of the summer, newly designed dashboard displays will be installed at the SFEBB to help educate the public about how impactful the building’s solar installation is.
The electronic dashboards, which will eventually be installed in every building with a solar installation, will show passersby how much energy is being generated by the solar panels. In addition, the dashboards will make the raw data a bit more digestible by expressing the emissions offset for everyday things like cars removed from the road or the energy used to brew a cup of coffee or power a laptop.
The installation of the dashboards will significantly increase the visibility of and engagement with solar projects here at the U. And though many people have been involved in creating the dashboards, the idea and motivation behind the project can be attributed to one driven business graduate student: Tom Melburn.
The dashboard project and work behind it is remarkable, but for Melburn, it’s nothing new; he has been spearheading a renewable energy projects at the U since he first started attending as an undergrad.
In 2011, Melburn came up with an idea to install an array of Solar Ivy, small leaf-shaped photovoltaics, covering one of the exterior walls of Orson Spencer Hall. Through a grant from the Sustainable Campus Initiative Fund and some fundraising of his own, Melburn was able to secure the funds for the project. The installation was to be the first of its kind in the US, and it got the community talking about solar power. Melburn was featured in the Salt Lake Tribune, Continuum Magazine, and several blogs.
Unfortunately, complications with the Solar Ivy manufacturer kept the project from ever being completed. That didn’t stop him from starting something new.
“I found my passion early on and committed myself to not only making a sustainable impact, but also to show people what it is like to be committed something. My own inner motivation and my passion is energy but also the love of actually doing things. Working on projects is what keeps me going,” Melburn says.
Melburn learned in 2012 that ASUU had found a surplus of $200,000 after an audit, and he decided to work with one of the members of the ASUU Senate to pitch the idea to use the funds for a solar project. ASUU agreed to commit $100,000 solar projects on campus. Melburn worked with Rocky Mountain Power to get an additional grant of about $100,000 towards the effort, and the Sustainability Resource Center pitched in $20,000. The dashboard project is just one of the ideas that the funding is helping to make a reality.
In the past two years, the grants have funded work by Melburn and his team of students to develop not only the dashboards, but also a mobile app that will allow the public to access information about renewable energy at the U on the go. The dashboard in the business building will go live on Friday, April 18, with the other dashboards rolling out throughout the month of May.
The unveiling of the dashboards will mark the end of a long journey for Melburn, one spanning years. Jeff Wrigley, the program manager for Energy Management here at the U, says it’s that long-term commitment that makes Melburn so remarkable.
“This is the most I’ve ever seen a student get involved. It’s been pretty typical to have them pop up, but most fade away or are only involved for one project. But [Melburn] has been a fixture in terms of solar energy over the last three years… He definitely wants to be involved with sustainability for his career and has the drive to see things through,” Wrigley says.
Melburn attributes the complexities and challenges involved with energy to his sustained interest in it.
“Energy has very significant impacts on climate change. A lot of people see a problem there, but I see an opportunity to find innovative solutions to big problems. As you dig deeper into energy, you realize that it’s a very complex thing. It’s not cut and dry or the same in different geographic regions. Instead, it’s a dynamic, constantly moving, and living and breathing thing. That’s why I dove in head first and have stayed,” Melburn says.
So with one big project wrapping up, what’s next up for Melburn?
Right now, Melburn is working as a market researcher for a solar energy company out of Seattle that is looking to possibly expand their market into Utah. Melburn says he’d love to continue working with them once his graduate program wraps up, but has other aspirations for the future, as well.
“I think the easy thing to do would be to go work for a behemoth company, traditionally a utility, and try to be the change maker there. That would be interesting and an easy way to make change, but I’d like to focus on a startup, generating a fund or something like a fund that allowed for foundations and private entities to invest into renewable energy projects. That might really allow for renewable energy to take off,” Melburn says. “But every day I change my mind about what I want to do,” he adds with a laugh.
Alicia Wrigley-Gailey is a senior in Communication and Jazz Performance. She is a Sustainability Ambassador with the Office of Sustainability.