At the forefront of sustainable energy

 

By Kristin Donaldson

Bush Alaska isn’t what first comes to mind when you hear the term “sustainable energy.” But in Dillingham it’s commonplace. UAF’s Bristol Bay Campus has a special academic track on sustainable energy. With a balanced focus on both pillars of sustainable energy — energy efficiency and renewable energy — Assistant Professor Tom Marsik is helping individuals, businesses and other entities decrease their consumption of fossil fuels, reduce energy costs and create environmentally responsible solutions.

Tom graduated from UAF in 2007 with a PhD in engineering. His thesis was “Developing Computer Models to Study the Effect of Outdoor Air Quality on Indoor Air for the Purpose of Enhancing Indoor Air Quality.” With his passion for energy and the environment, it wasn’t hard for him to stay focused on air quality research. His work was a mix of electrical, mechanical and environmental engineering, under the guidance of professors Ron Johnson, Rich Wies and others.

Due to his early interest in engineering, capped off by winning a computer programming competition in the Czech Republic, where he grew up, Tom applied for and was accepted to Skoda Technical High School. Afterward he transitioned to the College of Electrical Engineering at the Czech Technical University in Prague, where he received his MS in 2003.

Thanks to a work and travel program Tom was able to travel to Alaska for three summers, 2001 – 2003. He started washing buses at Denali National Park and Preserve and advanced to a maintenance worker. He also volunteered for the Denali Education Center. His last summer trip was extended through the following winter, when he fulfilled his dream of building a log cabin in the wilderness on a friend’s homestead north of Denali. For six months he lived off the land and built a log cabin from the local black spruce forest. From then on he called Alaska his new home, and he enrolled as a doctoral student at UAF in 2004.

After a year as a postdoctoral fellow and another year as an instructor at UAF in Fairbanks, Tom accepted a position with the Bristol Bay Campus’ Environmental Science Lab in Dillingham in 2009. Since then he has developed a program in sustainable energy with the help of Debi McLean, Todd Radenbaugh, Chet Chambers and many others. He created an occupational endorsement in sustainable energy and piloted several new courses, such as Introduction to Sustainable Energy, Home Energy Basics, Building Ventilation and Energy, and Passive House/Energy Efficient Construction. (See http://www.uaf.edu/bbesl/sustainable-energy/ for more information.)

Students from across the state are benefiting from the program thanks to distance-delivery options. Lectures are held online and anybody can participate. The student body ranges from high school students seeking dual credit to retired energy enthusiasts. Some classes are taught in person and include hands-on opportunities, such as installing a wind turbine.

With rising fuel costs there is a dire need to develop alternative energy sources and promote energy efficiency. Nowhere is this more evident than in rural Alaska. Tom’s collaboration with Dillingham’s local utility company and several of the surrounding villages are just a few examples of how he helps troubleshoot energy-related needs in the community. In addition, sustainable energy students are not only developing their careers but using the knowledge to reduce their home energy bills via energy efficiency upgrades, retrofits and utilization of renewable energy.

Together with his wife, Kristin Donaldson, Tom began building a net zero energy ready house in 2010. With the ethos of using as few resources as possible, the couple’s home is just under 600 square feet. The double-frame structure is filled with about 7 tons of blown cellulose. The interior walls, roof and floor are sealed in a continuous vapor barrier. This extremely tight house is ventilated with an HRV (heat recovery ventilator). In fact, the house is so tight it was recognized in March as the world’s tightest residential building by the World Record Academy. Tom is eager to share his award-winning model home with the general public through his teaching, guided tours and a website (see http://energy-alaska.wikidot.com/nzer-dillingham).

 

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