Student Mason Manley (right), a Bonner scholar and environmental studies major, participated in a solar training class this summer as part of an internship with Bridging the Gap in Virginia.

Digging deep into the charged world of renewable energy

August 19, 2022

Student Experience

Through a University of Richmond sustainabilty program, students learn firsthand how renewable energy intersects with areas like income, race, education, gender, human rights, and criminal justice.

You reap what you sow, hence the program’s name: the University Renewable Energy Education Program or U-REEP, Mary Finley-Brook explained. The associate professor of geography and the environment has been mentoring students through the program she launched in 2010. 

“This is about getting people to look at things holistically,” Finley-Brook said. “It’s about good energy decisions for the long term.”

Students take the lead, bringing Finley-Brook topics they want to dig into. Then, with her support, they gain meaningful hands-on experience. Participants have completed more than 30 internships, fellowships, and trainings with partners including the nonprofit organization Bridging the Gap in Virginia (BTGVA), which provides a bridge to success for formerly incarcerated people, veterans, substance abusers, at-risk youth, and other marginalized groups.

BTGVA’s environmental justice program offers free solar installation training. “It’s a huge market,” Finley-Brook observed. “But there’s just a lack of access.”

Senior McKenna Dunbar joined U-REEP during her first year in college to gain more awareness about environmental and racial justice issues. At BTGVA, she researched developments in the solar industry, renovated their website, managed their social media profiles, participated in meetings with environmental officials, wrote grant proposals, and provided community outreach in Buckingham County.

Among her achievements, Dunbar assisted county members with the paperwork for obtaining free solar panels and installation services, and helped the nonprofit secure a sizable grant.

“I am a more knowledgeable and empathetic person, because I was provided an opportunity to work so closely with impacted communities like the ones that BTGVA serves,” she said.

Finley-Brook teaches that renewable energy isn’t just plopping solar panels on a rooftop. Students learn to ask tough questions. They call out greenwashing — the practice of putting an environmentally friendly spin on activities, policies, or products that aren’t actually sustainable.

The program creates pathways to pursuing successful careers in sustainability-related fields. Two students became certified for solar installation through the North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners — a process that required 40 hours of training. A University of Richmond graduate now manages solar programs for the Virginia Department of Energy. In addition to her studies, Dunbar works for the Sierra Club as their building electrification lead managing a team focused on reducing fossil fuel dependence.

“U-REEP would not be as impactful and effective without the tireless work that professor Finley-Brook places into it,” Dunbar said. “She motivates students to push boundaries and grow into the people that will make transformative change across the globe.”