Posted on September 5, 2013

Sacramento: PG&E Kicks Off New Era of High School Energy Training

By David Kligman

SACRAMENTO — Four years ago, PG&E created New Energy Academies at five high schools in the utility’s service area. It was an experiment, a new way to teach young people about energy, better prepare them for college and maybe one day work for PG&E.

Those first classes graduated last spring. Today (Sept. 5), a new era of the program kicked off as PG&E’s Greg Pruett, senior vice president of corporate affairs, and U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui toured the New Energy Academy at Foothill High School in Sacramento. The school is notable for winning a competition among the five high schools to save the most energy.

PG&E's Greg Pruett greets Congresswoman Doris Matsui, who toured the New Energy Academy at Foothill High and later praised the program. (Photos by David Kligman.)

The program, a partnership with the California Department of Education, also continues at Venture Academy in Stockton Edison High in Fresno, Independence High in Bakersfield and Berkeley High.

Science teacher Dave Yeroshek, who has overseen the New Energy Academy at Foothill High from the start, gave a brief overview of the program to Matsui, Pruett and school officials. Then they got a look at some of the projects students have worked on in the past, including solar race cars and solar ovens.

Academy teacher: Young people matter

Yeroshek said the purpose of the program is to use energy themes to show young people that their role is vitally important.

“Our job is to keep them interested in high school and also believing that everything out there — colleges, universities, trade schools — are really for them,” he said. “It gives them buy-in to the system and shows them that they’re not excluded.”

Matsui, Twin Rivers Unified Superintendent Steven Martinez, principal Brian Welborn and Pruett toured the school lab and spoke to an English class of students who are all part of the academy.

Adriana Durfee, a junior at Foothill High, explains to PG&E's Greg Pruett the energy savings from the school's award-winning Unplugged competition.

Pruett told Currents that PG&E sees its support of programs such as the New Energy Academies as vital.

“It’s critical to us because this is actually the future generation of new-energy technology employees,” he said. “It’s such an incredible thing to see the enthusiasm of these students and what they’re doing. And it’s exciting for us because 52 percent of our workforce is retirement eligible in the next five years.”

U.S. representative praises PG&E program

The congresswoman liked what she saw and said she hopes to return later in the school year to get a progress update.

“I’m very impressed,” she said. “This is exactly what we need in terms of young people to pique their interests. It really motivates them to really think about what they’re going to be doing. They’re having fun and also they’re learning at the same time. If you can get them focused on something like this that’s going to change their lives and prepare them for the future, I think that’s wonderful. This is unbelievable.”

Student participation is voluntary and those who apply are interviewed by the academy’s staff and counselors. Ninety students are enrolled in the academy at Foothill High — sophomores, juniors and seniors. Their classes, including traditional subjects like math and English, focus on energy themes.

In addition to projects, there also are field trips. This month, thanks to PG&E’s funding, the junior class will tour the smart grid that runs the power at California State, Sacramento. And the sophomore class will tour the Cal ISO energy hub in October.

Foothill High students describe to U.S. Rep. Doris Matsui how they used a homemade solar oven to bake brownies.

Half of those enrolled in the academy are at-risk students, meaning they have had behavioral and other issues like poor grades and attendance problems. And it’s helping those students, said Welborn, the school’s principal.

“Kids here feel like they have a place where they feel like they’re part of something bigger,” he said. “The skills they’re getting — using their hands to build — is getting lost in schools.”

The program also gives back to the community. All five academies choose a PG&E nonprofit partner to benefit from the students’ newly-acquired energy efficiency skills. Foothill High selected Habitat for Humanity in Sacramento and performed a free energy audit, analyzing plug loads and lights while calculating the carbon footprint at the organization’s headquarters.

For the current students, a career in energy already is something they’re considering. Xavier Rodriguez, a 16-year-old junior, said he hopes to be an electrical engineer.

“I love it,” he said. “This academy is teaching me everything about energy.”

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