URI student advocates for sustainable heating fuel as Energy Fellow

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Sarah Egan
Sarah Egan

KINGSTON, R.I. – September 1, 2020 – University of Rhode Island senior Sarah Egan doesn’t fit the profile of a typical student who is awarded a URI Energy Fellowship. She’s a political science and English major rather than the usual science, engineering or economics major. But she said she likes critical thinking and is working toward a career as an environmental lawyer, so she decided to apply anyway.

“We all have something to offer the environmental sustainability movement,” she said. “I have experience with policy, and so I wanted to help influence energy policy.”

She is well on her way to doing just that.

Egan began working with the Energy Marketers Association of Rhode Island – the former Oil Heat Institute – last February as it changes its focus from encouraging the use of oil for home heating to a more sustainable mix of oil and what they call bioheat, a blend that includes recycled plant oils, animal fats and used cooking oil.

“Our world is undergoing a lot of changes as a result of the way we’ve been powering our lives, and this is a collection of businesses that understands their role in that change and they, like everyone else, have to adapt,” said Egan, who was born in Denmark and grew up in Bristol and Warwick, Rhode Island. “The main motivator for this change comes from an executive order passed by Governor Gina Raimondo to reduce and eventually eliminate the greenhouse gas emissions produced by the heating sector.”

According to Egan, every gallon of traditional heating oil now contains 5% bioheat, but the Energy Marketers are advocating for legislation requiring that fuels contain 10% bioheat components and as much as 50% by 2030.

During her fellowship, Egan reviewed legislation with the chief executive of the Energy Marketers Association, Roberta Fagan, helped her manage the day-to-day operation of the organization, and attended public meetings of the Rhode Island Office of Energy and the state’s Public Utilities Commission. She also joined URI’s other Energy Fellows in meetings with energy leaders around the region, from the Block Island Wind Farm to ISO New England.

“This experience has given me a lot of hope,” Egan said. “It’s easy to get caught up in the doom and gloom that is approaching climate change, and you hear a lot about what’s going wrong and not much about what’s being done. But I’ve met so many people over the course of this fellowship who have been really inspiring, people who care fundamentally about where we are, where we as a society need to end up, and the steps between these two places that need to be taken.

“There is such a great potential for change, and while that’s often seen as alarming, the ideas and passion that I’ve heard and witnessed have been really affirming that we’re heading in the right direction,” she added.

Egan is one of 19 URI Energy Fellows working at companies, government agencies and other organizations on a variety of energy issues, from renewables and energy efficiency to green building design and energy education. Established in 2008, the program meets the growing need for experiential learning opportunities for students interested in addressing energy issues from a sustainability or efficiency perspective.

“When I entered the program, I knew I wanted to head to law school, but I wasn’t quite sure what type of lawyer I wanted to be,” Egan said. “My time with the Energy Fellows program has helped me find greater clarity, and I hope to pursue a career in environmental law where I can find myself in a place where there are people similar to those I interacted with this summer and can spur the same type of positive change.”

A sailor and surfer, Egan frequently participates in beach cleanups with Save The Bay and helps teach surfing to people with physical and mental disabilities at an annual surfing clinic in Middletown sponsored by AmpSurf. As the new semester begins, she is preparing for the Law School Admission Test in hopes of entering law school next year.

“I’d like to work for an environmental law firm and help bridge the divide between economic and environmental protection,” she said. “I’d also like to be able to bring back what I learn to Rhode Island, which faces dramatic impacts to both landscape and culture if we don’t get serious about the way we live and how we take from the world that surrounds us. I think the opportunity to oversee the protection of a place that has raised me and that I love so dearly would be the ultimate achievement.”

Energy-related businesses and organizations interested in working with URI Energy Fellows are encouraged to contact Kate Venturini at kate@uri.edu to learn more about the program. Enrollment begins this fall.