California Poppies on a Foothill rooftop garden

Sustainability at Foothill

Inspring One Energy Champion at a Time

What if we all understood the basics of how energy works, its use and misuse, and how to correct the misuse within our homes, workplace and broader communities? Foothill engineering/nanoscience instructor and long-time energy champion Robert Cormia continues working on this one student at a time.

Cormia and physics faculty colleague Jamie Orr served respectively as co-principal investigator and principal investigator for Foothill’s 18-month, grant-funded Community Energy Champion Project, which was initiated in Summer 2013. After recruiting a handful of students to begin, they met biweekly with 20 students during the first year.

Through the completion of the project timeline, lessons were learned and structure gained for improvements on how we manage our energy at Foothill. While the grant funding has ended, the Energy Champions Project continues as Cormia continues to inspire interested students, sometimes one student at a time, oftentimes in larger groups. Either way, he is always working to teach students about energy use and the bigger picture.

Foothill’s newest energy champion, computer science student Joshua Kuehn, recently joined Cormia at Sustainability Base at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field for Earth Day. Speaking on the value of the tours at NASA, Kuehn, along with his girlfriend Rachel Kiefer who introduced him to the program, stressed the importance for students to experience sustainable practices in action and not just study them in theory. Tours of Sustainability Base play that important role, Kuehn said.

Funded by Silicon Valley Energy Watch, the City of San Jose, and Silicon Valley Foundation, Foothill's Energy Champions project was designed to develop a team of students trained in energy awareness, efficiency, and the ability to communicate their knowledge to their social networks, and spread energy saving habits throughout the community.

Students received energy education through seminars and brown bag lunch presentations, some including guest speakers from small business/energy entrepreneurs. These students also gave informal presentations in their classes to share their knowledge with other students, and surveys were administered to determine if these presentations made a difference in student knowledge and/or their energy habits.

Also known as the One Million Kilowatt-Hour Challenge, the project's first year was designed to teach students to use energy monitoring and management tools, analyze building energy, make energy-conserving changes in behavior, and apply energy efficiency to real-world buildings.

As the Energy Champions funding period ended, Cormia and Orr envisioned the program would move into a student club format, expanding its focus to efficiency in water and food, both of which have connections with energy.

Orr eventually moved from teaching at Foothill. She now provides workforce development expertise for the California Community Colleges as the Bay Area deputy sector navigator for the energy, construction and utilities industries. Cormia continues to support the project with unrelenting enthusiasm.

To become an energy champion last quarter, first-year student Kuehn signed up for Foothill's one-unit ENGR 70R: Independent Study in Engineering course, meeting one to one with Cormia to get up to speed on energy basics, and accessing energy measurement tools and how to read them.

Kuehn says he went from knowing very little about energy use and its impact on issues of global warming and climate change to understanding a whole lot more and why it’s important to know about the environmental impacts of energy.

Along with lessons gained from the grant-funded project, the college used $5,000 to purchase a Gridium software system. The software has been helpful in reviewing daily campus energy trends. The system displays Foothill's energy loads every 15 minutes, as well as campus base load and the highs and lows. This provides real-time examples for conversations about energy usage and how to reduce it. Using Gridium, Kuehn can log in from his laptop and see patterns of campus energy use.

This spring quarter, Kuehn is enrolled in Foothill's ENGR 40: Introduction to Clean Energy Technology course, which introduces students to the technical field of clean energy technology, including modern energy systems and utility infrastructure, fossil fuel and renewable energy power generation, solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind technology, buildings as systems, green and LEED building standards, smart energy and active distribution (microgrid concept), transportation energy and advanced transportation solutions, and the future of sustainable energy systems.

In week six of the class, students paired up to design an electric power system, weighing in on the design goals, total energy, peak load, carbon intensity, cost, resilience, scale and deployment. The small teams also looked at costs of energy technology, capacity and fuel factors, lead times for projects, and greenhouse gas emissions.

During the team presentations, class discussion focused on fossil fuel use versus renewable energy, as well as the viability of energy produced through nuclear power plants. All the students dreamed big, with the goal to eventually phase out carbon-intensive coal and non-renewable natural gas.

As he assigned a write-up of the night’s exercise, Cormia asked students to think about this: “What is our world energy situation now and how did we get there?” He hinted the answer had something to do with too many people using too much of the wrong energy.

When asked about what’s next for him as an Energy Champion, Kuehn said he’s looking forward to attending more field trips to see innovation in action, like his visit to Sustainability Base, which is considered to be the federal government’s greenest building constructed yet. Sharing his enthusiasm for the place is an example of what an Energy Champion can do when meeting with others in his or her community, whether talking about climate science and energy policy with other students and climate change researchers or hanging out with family and friends.

Cormia’s next goal is to work on an Energy Champions instruction manual so that the project can be replicated in high schools, other colleges and by other Foothill students, faculty and staff.

According to the final Community Energy Champion grant report submitted to Silicon Valley Energy Watch in Fall 2014, Foothill learned and gained six key points through this effort:

  1. Energy analytics tool, including Gridium
  2. Organizational structure around energy efficiency strategies
  3. Student champions with a growing base of interest in the project
  4. The ideology of “clubs as classes” 
  5. Most students understand energy as a cost, not an amount
  6. Multiple faculty/advisors are needed to inspire and manage students

All these efforts add support for achieving the goals of Foothill’s Sustainability Management Plan, which includes a bullet point for transportation, energy conservation and CO2 reductions as one of six categories of focus for the college.

Over the next five years, Foothill’s three most important sustainability goals will be to engage more students in all phases of sustainability, monitor and measure energy consumption, and engage the campus community in sustainability awareness and engagement. Our continuing efforts to help students like Kuehn learn how to think and speak about clean energy practices is an important aspect of this.

To learn more about the Energy Champion Program, e-mail Robert Cormia at

If you're interested in joining Foothill’s broader sustainability efforts, visit the Sustainability website for the Sustainability Committee's meeting dates and times.


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