Duke students get first-hand introduction to Austin’s energy, tech scene

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Thursday, Dec 17, 2015 - 4:45 pm
An operations manager at Active Power presents the company's specialized flywheel unit during a visit to the manufacturing site

Austin, Texas, is one of the nation’s fastest-growing energy hubs, leveraging the region’s abundant oil, wind and solar resources. That’s what drew 14 Duke University students to visit the region this fall for one-on-one meetings with energy and technology companies.

Students from Pratt Engineering, Nicholas Environment and Fuqua Business made the two-day Career Trek trip, helped with funding from the Energy Initiative, visiting eight of the more than 200 energy and technology companies in the Austin area. The host businesses’ specialties included electric co-operatives, renewable energy infrastructure, flywheel engineering, data analytics in oil and gas as well as consumer behavior, and cutting-edge climate detoxification technologies.

Discussions touched on a range of issues relevant to the students’ interdisciplinary backgrounds including energy financing, grid design, consumer behavior and big data.

  • Drilling Info emphasized the value of their user defined oil and gas prospecting database in maximizing efficiencies.
  • Consulting firms CLEAResult and Energy Renewal Partners opened up about the distinct challenges of advising different consumer groups, and the need for technologies that respond to both the commercial goal of strong returns on investment and the individual’s goal of health and cost savings.
  • One predominant theme echoed at Pedernales Electric Cooperative, analytics firm Pecan Street, and CLEAResult was the need for innovative engineering, financing and marketing to make solar and user-defined analytics tools competitive and compelling for all consumer types. Another was the need for effective storage technologies that suit existing energy infrastructure — renewable and conventional.
  • Company executives at Active Power and Skyonics spoke with students about technical and conceptual designs for electricity regulating flywheel technology and the conversion of power generator chemical outputs into saleable chemical commodities.
Representatives at Pedernales Electric Cooperative speak with Pratt students about their work history and future goals

Austin is attracting a growing number of Duke alumni in the energy industry. Mid-career alums Andy Kristoffersen (M.E.M. ‘10, Active Power) and Brad Harmon (M.B.A. ’09, SunPower) shared their views on business opportunities and industry trends over an informal dinner in downtown Austin; Candace Buford (J.D., M.B.A. ’13, Gerson Lehrman Group) and Audrey Archer (M.E.M. ’15, Energy Renewal Partners) offered insights on Austin’s job market and the process of building a career path.

The trip’s blend of conference room and casual conversations afforded students dynamic introductions to an array of industry professionals and business models in the quickly-evolving energy sector. The group returned to Durham motivated to define their own unique roles in one of our world’s most influential growth industries.


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By Eleanor Johnstone, Master of Environmental Management candidate