Designing the big picture

If you work in the world of alternative/renewable energy, you end up spending a lot of time talking about solar. Solar energy dominates our understanding of alternative energy. It instructs how we talk about it. If you’re going to make an icon that represents alternative energy, it’s probably a sun. They’re almost synonyms. Solar is highly visible. It sits on roofs and fills solar fields. It’s a poster child. But it is important to remember that alternative energy also includes geothermal, wind, biofuels, hydro and fuel cell.


Since solar tends to dominate our cultural understanding of alternative energy, and because Beth Andrew and Julia Edgar — the subjects of this episode of Renewable —  are both currently working as solar designers, solar took up most of the room in our discussion in this episode. And yet, our conversation (and a quick look at the program they both took to get where they are) reveals that in order to think about alternative energy accurately, you need to think of it holistically, which means going beyond solar panels.


Every year NAIT’s alternative energy program must continue to answer the question: How do you train someone for a job that will change by the time they enter the market? The answer to that question sits at the heart of what it means to be a “designer” for Beth and Julia.

Designing a solar PV system doesn’t just mean designing how the panels are laid and how the instrumentation works. That’s because designing a solar pv system means figuring out how that system fits into a larger grid of energy sources — some alternative and some not. It means making decisions based on how the grid gets energy now, and how it will get energy in the future. In short, being a solar designer means doing work that fits into a system made up of far more than solar.


That’s probably why even though any one graduate will probably be working in a specific sector focusing on a specific kind of alternative energy, NAIT’s program has students studying geothermal, wind, biofuels, hydro, and fuel cells. It’s a holistic program. And while the program focuses on the implementation of these systems — the hands on parts — it also focuses on a more bird’s eye version of design. One where the designer needs to figure out how multiple alternative energy systems can fit into a larger grid made up of a lot of consumers pulling energy from a lot of sources.


That means the person designing the cells that sit on your roof also understands how those cells fit into the larger system. Those alternative energy designers could potentially use the same principles they’re taught and that they use on buildings on a daily basis, to expand their scope to larger systems like neighbourhoods, and even cities..

And if thinking about those kinds of things intrigues you, give this episode of Renewable a watch and maybe give “NAIT Alternative Energy Program” a Google.

Renewable is a series about visionaries, creators, community leaders and above all else, Edmontonians, each with a unique vision of a sustainable future in the heart of Canada’s fossil fuel industry.

The Renewable Series Team is composed of the City of Edmonton’s Energy Transition group and the creative minds at Sticks & Stones.

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