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BC Hydro mentors help high schoolers at Clean Currents Challenge

Students participating in the Clean Currents Challenge
Students in the Clean Currents Challenge peer in at their wind-powered turbine assembly earlier this month at UBC.

STEM students take on wind power system challenge

The challenge: In less than three hours, design and deliver a renewable electricity generation system that uses a hair dryer as a source of wind power to spin a turbine to create electricity to power an LED bulb.

No worries. You've got everything you need, from popsicle sticks and cardboard, to pool noodles, to the sage advice of four of our energy professionals that volunteered to mentor the high schools taking part in the challenge.

First-time mentor Amanda Young, a load forecast engineer at BC Hydro, is pleased to report that every team that took part in the recent Clean Currents Challenge at UBC in Vancouver, lit up their bulb and rocked their closing presentations.

"These students were so smart, and their presentations blew me away," said Young, "All of the teams were successful in completing the challenge, but there were differences in the way they came up with their solutions. "

Turbine designs differed, as did the cool innovations on how the turbines were housed. One team stuck their turbine in a pool noodle and held it. Another built a cardboard structure designed to better capture the 'wind' from the hair dryer.

There were two categories in the competition, one for students in Grades 8 and 9, and one for students in Grades 10-12. There were 41 students in all, and Young said she was pleased to see that an all-female team won the Grade 8-9 event. A big reason for Young's decision to volunteer as a mentor was to support girls interested in pursuing a career in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).

"I grew up in a small farming community south of Calgary, and nobody I knew had ever done anything like that – I barely knew what an engineer was, let alone have a female example of one," said Young, noting that she was one of 10 women in a mechanical engineering class of 111 at the University of Alberta. "I think it's important for young people to see a woman who's been working in the energy field for more than 20 years, to hear about it and normalize it."

Mentoring our future leaders

Also volunteering at the event were Site C project manager Derek Collins, engineer-in-training Christel Nicolas, and Denis Clement, director of a team that oversees mandatory reliability standards, telecommunications, protections, and controls.

One of the judges at the event was our President and CEO Chris O'Riley, a Professional Engineer in electrical engineering who, among other accomplishments, holds the distinction of finishing second at his Grade 6 science fair in North Delta. As the keynote speaker at the recent IGNITE career development conference at UBC, he touched on why he's such a big fan of STEM programs and competitions.

"As STEM students, you have an advantage – you're used to asking questions and solving problems – and it will serve you well," he told students at the conference. "You will be the next leaders in health care, industry, technology, and energy – you will be solving some of the most complex problems the world has ever faced – from climate change to food scarcity."

A newspaper clipping of future President and CEO Chris O'Riley with the crystal radio he built as a Grade 6 student
A newspaper clipping shows our future President and CEO Chris O'Riley with the crystal radio he built as a Grade 6 student competing in a North Delta science fair.

Students inspire optimism for a renewable energy future

The world's reliance on fossil feels has led to a climate change crisis that has put a premium on the increased use of clean electricity to replace fossil fuels and lower greenhouse gas emissions. But even here in B.C., which has an abundance of renewable power, there are enormous challenges on the path to electrification.

Driven by the B.C. Government's climate action plans, our Electrification Plan goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the province by 900,000 tonnes per year by April 2026. That's like taking 200,000 gas-powered cars off the road.

"About 70% of our total energy here in B.C. still comes from greenhouse gas emitting fossil fuels, and this needs to change," said O'Riley at the IGNITE conference. "We know from history that these big transitions can be distressing. Change will bring both challenges and opportunities. Companies, institutions, and all of us as individuals, will have to adapt."

As a member of our load forecast team, Young is involved in annual electricity demand projections that factor in the expected energy needs of everything from industry to electric vehicles. She says the road to electrification won't be easy, and stressed that the high school engineering competition at UBC gave her hope that the next generation will be up to the challenge.

"Humans since the beginning of time have been innovating and adapting and creating and designing and building everything that we have today," said Young. "So I think what we're facing now is probably no different than what humans have faced before. And, eventually creative ingenuity will get us there, and commitment will get us there. It's just not an easy path."