New engineering degree focuses on the future in alternative energy

You don't need a turbine to tell which way the wind's blowing, but the blades generating electricity as they spin indicate a new direction at Penn State Hazleton.

For more than 75 years, students have started their education in Hazleton and transferred to University Park to finish their degrees.

Now a slight breeze is pushing in the other direction.

Students from University Park and other Penn State undergraduates campuses are arriving in Hazleton to earn a bachelor's degree offered nowhere else in the system and at a few other universities.

The engineering degree in alternative energy sources prepares students to design wind turbines, make buildings and businesses more efficient energy consumers, and perfect systems to absorb power from sun, tides and the depths of the earth.

"It will be this generation of students, I think, that defines what our energy future looks like," Dr. Gary Lawler, the chancellor at Penn State Hazleton, said. 

While providing a niche that draws students to Hazleton, the program equips students with the background and the flexibility to deal with one of the world's most complex problems, as Dr. Wes Grebski knows.

Soaring prices at the gas pumps, an oil spill at a deepwater drill in the Gulf of Mexico and rising levels of carbon dioxide predicted to change climate all suggest reasons for replacing fossil fuels as a primary source of power, Grebski, an associate professor of engineering, said. 

"I got my master's degree in 1974 so I've been in engineering quite a while. The way I see it, if I would be starting my career right now, I see in the future the big change in energy," he said.

Grebski thought up the idea for the program 10 years ago, about the time that he built a solar hotwater heater for his home from glass vacuum tubes. 

Five years ago, the university began reviewing plans to establish the program at the Hazleton Campus while some groundwork for the program was done at campus.

The wind turbine went up in 2008. 

A year later, students installed an array of solar panels that generates 3.2 kilowatts, enough to electrify an adjacent building and have power remaining to sell on the grid. 

A solar car that the students designed is garaged on campus, as is an electric car that Grebski retrofitted with solar panels. When parked in the sun, the car recharges its batteries. 

"We want to be ahead of everybody else. That is the key. With new technology, the first one out there can make an impact. Right now, we are one of the first programs in the country so we can make a big contribution," Grebski said. "We got ahead of everybody."

Dhaval Bhalodia is one student who got into alternative energy ahead of the program. After graduating with honors from Hazleton Area High School, Bhalodia enrolled at Penn State Hazleton before the program in alternative energy engineering started. He planned to become an aeronautical engineer.

Penn State Hazleton provided him a setting close to his home that offered the same level of courses as the University Park campus, but with smaller classes.

"This enables professors to provide more time for each student, and enables students to learn more in the process. The Hazleton campus allowed me to participate in many extra academic activities, such as engineering projects, which not only provided me with a stronger academic background, but also helped me build teamwork skills," Bhalodia said.

As a junior after transitioning to the main campus, he arranged to work through a co-op program with the wind energy division of General Electric. "I had always been intrigued by the concept of alternative energy, especially wind," Bhalodia said.

Through the co-op he became determined to learn more about wind power when he returned to college. For his senior thesis, done through the Schreyer Honors Program, Bhalodia re-directed his training in aeronautics to wind power. His thesis examined the design of wind turbine blades.

Now he works at General Electric as a wind turbine performance engineer. 

Approval for Penn State Hazleton to launch the program - officially called the Bachelor of Science in General Engineering with an Alternative Energy and Power Generation Track - to train more engineers like Bhalodia arrived in time for students to enroll for the fall of 2010. 

Some students from other campus have transferred into the program already, but Lawler and Grebski expect more transfers in the fall of 2012. 

That's when third-year courses will be offered to students who have completed two years of core mathematics and science classes and are ready to delve into courses on fundamentals of renewable energy, hydrogen fuel cells, electrochemical energy conversion, circuits and computer-aided design. 

The curriculum is designed to make students nimble enough to work in design, research, manufacturing or technical sales for the new energy industries. 

"Everybody agrees within the next 5, 10, 15 years, lots of jobs will be created in renewable energy," Grebski said. "?Precisely what those jobs are going to be is harder to predict. 

To create a curriculum and offer the courses, the engineering faculty at Penn State Hazleton transformed classes that they offered previously and adapted ideas from an advisory committee. Grebski continues to recruit new advisers from leaders in the sustainable energy industry. 

"What we're trying to do at Hazleton is stay a little ahead of the curve ? be ready for the what the future brings," he said. 

When President Barack Obama, during a speech on Feb. 3 at University Park, told Penn Staters to be as proud of what they do in the lab as they are of what the football team does, he touted an Energy Innovation Hub that Penn State leads at the Philadelphia Navy Yard. There, teams are retrofitting a building to promote and commercialize innovations in sustainable energy. 

Grebski met with a Penn State Professor working on the project at the Navy Yard. "Already we've established a working relationship with them. Those are big players. They visited us at Hazleton. They knew we were working with alternative energy," he said.
He also hopes to use the Hub's alternative energy lab. It's mobile, he said, and could be trucked to Hazleton for a short, intensive training course. Meanwhile, faculty in Hazleton have offered short training courses to local businesses.

CAN DO, the economic development organization for Greater Hazleton, teamed with Penn State to design training programs for businesses looking for ways to trim energy costs. Since March, the campus offered courses in best energy practices, pumps and motors, and industrial electricity. 

The relationship with CAN DO and local companies may open opportunities for students to serve internships and for graduates to obtain employment. "We talk with companies to set that in motion so we make sure students have practical experience and apply the content to real situations," Lawler said. 

Graduates like Bhalodia will become part of what Grebski calls an ecosystem of people, industries, local school districts, a business incubator and agencies that will keep updating the engineering program after his retirement, which he already postponed. 

"I'm too excited to retire," Grebski said. "I want to see students graduate from the program."



For more information on the Bachelor of Science degree in General Engineering with an Alternative Energy and Power Generation Track, visit or contact Dr. Wes Grebski at [email protected] or 570-450-3087.

For more information on the Bachelor of Science degree in General Engineering with an Alternative Energy and Power Generation Track, visit  or contact Dr. Wes Grebski at or 570-450-3087.