Community of

For UAA mechanical engineering undergraduate Henry Toal, it has been a gratifying experience to join one of UAA’s research communities. Toal works as an intern in the Anchorage office of the Alaska Center for Energy and Power (ACEP), a program based at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where he has contributed to several research projects.

Meaningful work

Toal’s first project was to help develop prototypes for the Onsite Realtime Collection and Acquisition platform — or ORCA — a simple-to-install and easy-to-use data collection tool. ORCA enables a better understanding of energy utilization in Alaska’s rural communities, where powerhouses are often older models incapable of storing long-term data. This, in turn, improves decision making when it comes to incorporating renewable energy sources like solar, wind and hydroelectricity.

“Something I really appreciate about ACEP,” Toal said, “is they gave me the trust and support right from the start to do meaningful work. It feels good to know that what I contributed makes Alaska a better place. And the ORCA could really be used anywhere with older powerhouses — all across the world, really — so who knows what the impact will be?”

students installing solar panels on building side
Stephen Trimble (right), B.A. Interdisciplinary Studies ‘08, founder and CEO of Arctic Solar Ventures, supervises the installation of solar panels on UAA’s Administration/Humanities Building by employee Chris Cronick (left).

More recently, Toal served as the lead writer on a technical report that assessed the potential effectiveness of installing solar panels on UAA’s campus. He has also been researching and implementing quality control algorithms for solar energy and corresponding data collected at the solar test array on UAF’s campus.

The Alaska Center for Energy and Power

It may come as a surprise that a UAA student has spent years working with a UAF center, but partnerships across the UA system’s three universities are actually not that uncommon.

Dr. Erin Whitney, the manager of ACEP’s Solar Technologies and Data Collection & Management programs, said, “One of the compelling aspects of ACEP is that we work all around the state, and we have small offices in both Anchorage and Juneau in addition to the mothership in Fairbanks.”

One ongoing collaboration pairs Whitney alongside two UAA researchers, Dr. Jen Schmidt from the Institute of Social and Economic Research and Dr. Aaron Dotson from the Department of Civil Engineering. Whitney, Schmidt, Dotson and the rest of their team explore the ways that renewable energy infrastructure installed on microgrids in small communities across the state can benefit food, energy and water security. The project, called MicroFEWs, has resulted not only in close-knit teamwork among UA researchers, but with community partners in Kongiganak, Tanana, Cordova and Igiugig.

Dotson, who is also UAA’s vice chancellor of research, said, “Through systemwide research collaborations on projects like MicroFEWs, we leverage the strengths of each university — UAA, UAF and UAS. Each researcher brings their personal connections and expertise that combine to amplify our collective impact. These cross-disciplinary, statewide partnerships open opportunities to study the big challenges and issues that are not often able to be effectively studied otherwise.”