Nelson Institute alumni working to create a bright future for solar power

November 6, 2019

August Schultz: Chemistry and M.S. Environmental Observation and Informatics (EOI) 2019

Jessica Price: M.S. Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development (now Environmental Conservation), 2010 and PhD Environment and Resources, 2016 

As cities and states move to increase renewable energy usage, two Nelson Institute alumni will be leading the way on Long Island. August Schultz, Environmental Observation and Informatics (EOI) alumnus and Jessica Price, Conservation Biology and Sustainable Development (now Environmental Conservation) and Environment and Resources alumna, are a part of The Nature Conservancy’s Long Island Solar Roadmap Project, which is working to locate low-impact sites for solar energy installations on Long Island. The locations, which will be identified using a variety of data, will aid New York in meeting its goal of receiving 70 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.

“Long Island is the sunniest part of New York, so it has a vital role to play in any state-wide solar development planning,” said Price, who is currently working as the New York Renewable Energy Strategy Lead at The Nature Conservancy. “We want to minimize the impacts of renewable energy development on the environment, so we are searching for low-impact areas for solar development on Long Island, like parking lots, rooftops, and other previously developed areas.”

Creating an accurate map of the available rooftops and parking lots on Long Island requires a thorough knowledge of observation and informatics and the ability to turn satellite data and algorithms into real-time representations, so Price connected with Nelson Institute EOI coordinator, Sarah Graves, to see if a student would be available to help with this project.

The EOI professional master's option, which integrates Earth observation and informatics technologies and big data analytics in one unique, 15-month platform, helps students gain technical expertise and leadership skills. As a part of the EOI curriculum, the program connects each student with an organization that allows them to integrate their technical skills with a real-time, on-the-ground project. In this case, Graves and Price felt that The Nature Conservancy project was a great fit for a student, so Graves introduced the idea to August Schultz.

For Schultz, the opportunity to participate in this project was a meaningful next step in his professional journey. A recent graduate in chemistry, Schultz had decided to apply to the EOI program and seek out a career in observations and informatics after considering multiple avenues for graduate school.

“As a junior in college, I was on track to apply for a chemistry PhD program. I thought I was finding my niche there, but I was always more interested in the intersection of different fields, and I was trying to find a spot that straddled the boundary between chemistry and biology,” Schultz said. “As a part of my chemistry degree, I took a GIS course and really enjoyed it, so I decided to take another course that was more conservation GIS oriented. Then, I started thinking back to when I was little. I was really into reading the road atlas in the car, and I realized this is what I should be doing. So, when I got an email from the EOI program, I thought it was the perfect next step.”

Soon after, Schultz spoke with Graves, applied to the program, and ultimately began his coursework in June 2018. By November 2018, Schultz had connected with The Nature Conservancy and was working remotely on the initial plan for the solar project. 

“Starting in mid-November, I was talking with the folks at The Nature Conservancy and jumping on leadership team calls to determine ways I could be involved even before going to New York in the summer,” Schultz said. “One of the things they needed done was determining a way to systematically digitize all of the parking lots on Long Island. I started that right away, since we knew that would take a very long time. I was also trying to learn about the background of the project as much as possible. For example, who was governing the direction of the project, the structure of the project, and what was our involvement with other team members such as Defenders of Wildlife and researchers from Michigan Technological University. My work only covered one of the three facets of solar development that was being studied as a part of this project, so I felt obligated to learn how the spatial analysis fit in with the social and economic research that was also being carried out.”

By the summer of 2019, Schultz had temporarily relocated to Long Island to spend a few months working on the project at The Nature Conservancy office. This gave Schultz a chance to get to know the community on Long Island, learn more about their feelings towards solar power, and gain a new perspective on sustainable development.

“On Long Island, they are necessarily quite conservative when it comes to big technological and on-the-ground change,” Schultz said. “They’ve been burned before by development that has gone too quickly. This is a place that has vanishingly small areas of agriculture and wild areas, and they are very motivated to protect that space. In an effort to avoid controversy around solar development, advocates for solar have discussed where solar could be sited to minimize negative impacts and potentially provide additional side benefits beyond generating electricity. In many of these discussions, a natural conclusion was to put solar on every rooftop and parking lot. That’s easier said than done, however, since no one had yet done the work to figure out where those spaces are and how much solar could be installed. It’s hard to make policy recommendations without this information. We do have datasets of where buildings are if we just wanted to quantify the solar power generation capacity of rooftops, but we had to build the datasets of parking lots and areas suitable for ground-mounted solar arrays from scratch.”

In order to locate these spaces, Schultz and the team at The Nature Conservancy and Defenders of Wildlife worked together to develop a model that would allow the team to correctly interpret the satellite data. Schultz said one of the challenges was defining a classification process that would correctly identifying suitable grassy and barren sites for ground-mounted solar arrays.

“Through this experience, I’ve learned a lot of time needs to be spent defining things that seem obvious,” said Schultz. “For example, where do you draw the boundary between grassland and forest? Both forests and grasslands can contain elements of the other, and the cutoffs mostly depend on perspective and technical constraints. Determining that boundary for our project was therefore an iterative process of refining our model to more representatively separate forests and grasslands.”

Once the model was perfected, the team at The Nature Conservancy began analysis to identify potential locations for solar on parking lots, rooftops, and underutilized sites for ground-mounted solar, ultimately conducting a pilot study for one of the towns on Long Island.

“To help create the model for how the entire island will be analyzed was great,” Schultz said. “It was beneficial to have the support of The Nature Conservancy. There were people there to help me optimize my analysis.”

Likewise, Price and The Nature Conservancy were glad to have Schultz’s help.

“It was really important to us that we integrated August into the plan, not just an intern, but a full-fledged team member,” Price said. “We knew it was a heavy lift, but we were excited to have a student who was jazzed about this topic. August brought a good diversity of skills to the team, and he provided us with assistance that was on-par with a fulltime employee. I would absolutely work with the EOI program again.”

For Schultz, the EOI experience and internship were the perfect next step and he is looking forward to applying what he’s learned in his career.

“When I think about my dream job, I think about what I did at the Nature Conservancy, and I just know that I want to keep doing that kind of work,” Schultz said. “I would definitely love to be in a field that is doing similar ambitious work in sustainable development, and I think I’m at a point where I want to be patient and find something that I know will be enjoyable and is a good fit.”