Leading the Way: Alternative Energy Industry

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California has been a key leader in the transition to more sustainable, greener alternative energy sources, “trailblazing and leading everyone forward," says David Blekhman, Ph.D., a professor in California State University, Los Angeles's College of Engineering, Computer Science and Technology.

Just look to the road: California has the most registered electric vehicles (EV) in the nation, almost 180,000, and the largest number of EV stations and charging outlets, 61 of which are on Cal State LA's campus (including six fast-charging stations). The state also hosts the most hydrogen-powered cars and 41 of the 46 retail hydrogen fueling stations in the U.S.

As a result, California is home to research facilities and companies involved in these industries, and Cal State LA is ensuring its students are prepared to secure those jobs. “Cal State LA boasts one of the best real-world living labs facilities for students' practical training," says Dr. Blekhman, who directs the Technology Department's Sustainable Energy and Transportation program.

For the past seven years, Cal State LA students, under Blekhman's guidance, have participated in two EcoCAR projects, competitions run by the U.S. Department of Energy and General Motors to make vehicles more energy efficient. Most recently, the four-year EcoCAR3 competition, which ended in 2018, required teams to redesign a Chevrolet Camaro to improve its efficiency while maintaining its performance. The Cal State LA team designed a plug-in hybrid police car, which is now a case study for the electric and hybrid vehicles course, and received the 2018 Clean Air Award from the South Coast Air Quality Management District for educating the public about energy-efficient vehicles.

As part of classes, students also take tours, meet industry leaders and complete internships at local green technology manufacturers, such as electric bus manufacturer Proterra or EV batteries producer Romeo Power.

Students are also getting experience with hydrogen vehicles, especially at the Cal State LA Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility, the country's first hydrogen fueling station to qualify for retail sale. While some work in the station as interns, others in the fuel cell course complete labs and assignments related to the station.

“It's a living laboratory for us," says Blekhman, who is also the 2019-20 Fulbright Distinguished Chair in Alternative Energy Technology at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden. “We train students on how to properly operate the hydrogen station. … Students, by working at the station, get a really intimate look at [the procedures and equipment]. And in addition to just operation, they learn maintenance and what potential failures could happen and how to fix them."

Yet the campus goes beyond energy-efficient vehicles with its solar installation that helps power the campus. The installation and management of the solar plant have provided learning opportunities for students in the photovoltaics class, necessary training considering California produces the most solar power in the country and is home to the largest solar farm.

“I'm training students who can design this system and, if needed, inspect their proper installation," Blekhman explains. This includes conducting performance evaluations and predictions, wiring the system and ensuring proper installation to avoid interference and maximize power generation. “It's very beneficial when you teach a course to have access to the physical plant, the installation and then the data that is generated."

Check out our “Moving California Ahead" series to see more ways the CSU is keeping the state at the forefront of cleaner, more sustainable energy.

Dr. David Blekhman with the EcoCAR3 team and their Chevrolet Camaro.
Dr. David Blekhman with the EcoCAR3 team and their Chevrolet Camaro.
Blekhman tours the Cal State LA Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility.
Blekhman tours the Cal State LA Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility.
Dr. David Blekhman holding a fueling nozzle at the Cal State LA Hydrogen Research and Fueling Facility.
The Hydrogen Fueling station uses renewable energy sources to produce hydrogen for the fuel it sells.