Recovering energy and cultural resources

Bret Harper, Renewable energy consultant

Photograph of Bret Harper
Bret Harper is a private industry consultant. As a student he participated in UCAR's SOARS program. (Photo by Carlye Calvin, ©UCAR.)


Bret Harper has lived in four beautiful environments: San Diego, Honolulu, Boulder, and the San Francisco Bay Area. He jokes that his parents decided to move away from San Diego when he was eight because "They figured that the only place better than where we were was Hawaii." In Honolulu, he surfed and studied his way to high school graduation at Punahou School in 2001 (too late to cross paths with fellow alum Barack Obama).

In those days, Harper had interests, but not a career plan. "When I look back, it becomes obvious to me that I was always interested in renewable energy because I was running around to wind farms, making videos, explaining to people how wind energy works. But at the time, I didn't know what I wanted to do. I did a summer internship in an engineering firm and did well, and everyone said it was a good field to be in, so that's what I signed up for when I went to college."

‘It was very helpful to be in an intensive program and to learn how to do research.’

Build your own major

Harper chose the University of Colorado partly because he wanted to live in Boulder. CU's Environmental Engineering Program had several tracks, "such as air and water, but I didn't want to make any of them my career, so I proposed that I do renewable energy instead.

"They didn't have a major like that, but they said go ahead and put together your coursework. I think that was possible because it was such a small department. I combined all the classes that I was interested in and added independent projects to supplement when there were no classes in an area I wanted to study. It was a very organic process; I just did what interested me."

While at CU, he became a SOARS protégé, doing research with NCAR scientists. "That was an integral part of making me who I am. Professionally, it was very helpful to be in an intensive program and to learn how to do research, write a paper, and interact with top scientists. On the personal growth level, I got introduced to lots of my peers who I'm still in very close contact with, and that makes a good network of people all over the country who are becoming successful in the atmospheric field."

For grad school, Harper chose the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California Berkeley. Although he had never lived in the Bay Area, the move meant he was going home.

‘Getting to know people of my tribe and take that journey with them to bring the culture back . . . opened up a new way of seeing things for me.’

A new way of seeing

Harper is Coast Miwok and Southern Pomo in heritage, and the northern side of San Francisco Bay was the home of these tribes. Contact with Europeans brought the tribes to the brink of extinction: the Coast Miwok tribe dwindled to only 14 people in the 1800s, and the last native speaker of the Coast Miwok language died in 1978.

It was two men of European descent who kept the language from disappearing completely, Harper explains. In the mid-20th century, "one anthropologist took it on himself to record and document the language, and he passed the work on to [UC Berkeley linguist Richard Applegate]. Working with [Applegate], we've been able to bring the language back. The anthropologists have been very helpful in teaching us the pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary, but it's very refreshing that they acknowledge that it's our language" and that new words need to be invented.

"I also learned about singing, dancing, baskets, doing ecological restoration. Whether you're learning the language or learning how to plant a garden, it's just amazing to me how interwoven all that knowledge is. Getting to know people of my tribe and take that journey with them to bring the culture back, that felt really good. It opened up a new way of seeing things for me."

First-hand experience

After finishing his M.S. degree in 2007, Harper joined Black & Veatch as a renewable energy consultant. Then he decided to go home again, this time back to Honolulu. He enjoys his job at ARCADIS. He's also learning outside of office hours—but from Hawaiian canoe paddling, sailing, his studies of Coast Miwok and Hawaiian, and gardening, rather than academic studies.

"I'm not doing any research, and I'm not really interested in going back for a Ph.D.," he says. "I'm learning a lot through paddling and the Hawaiian language. A lot of traditional environmental knowledge is encoded in things like that. There's a whole rhythm and knowledge of how to work together to move through the ocean quickly and efficiently. You use the Hawaiian language to give commands, to name things, and say prayers. I find that fulfilling as a sport and as a spiritual practice.

"To have a first-hand experience of the ocean, what it means when there are three different swells from three different directions, how the ocean changes over the course of a year, and how it interacts with the wind as well—there are different conditions every time you go out. You develop a different kind of knowledge."

About Consulting

"In the private sector, you feel like you're making a direct impact," says Bret Harper. The renewable energy consultant glimpsed the life of a research scientist while earning his bachelor's and master's degrees. He'd go back for a Ph.D. if he ever felt the need, but at the moment he's an articulate proponent of a career in the business world.

It probably doesn't hurt that Harper is working in Hawaii, a state where people have reason to consider the value of renewable energy every time they fill their gas tanks. Currently, 90% of the state's electricity is generated from imported petroleum products, which also fuel virtually all of its transport. That dependence bleeds about $7 billion per year from the state.

Fortunately, Hawaiians have been developing their renewable sources of energy for some years, and during the skyrocketing oil and gas prices of 2008, the state unveiled a clean energy initiative that includes switching 70% of energy production to renewable sources by 2030.

Harper's graduate study focused on wind climatology, but he works on a variety of questions as a consultant for ARCADIS. "I worked on a few projects doing wind energy storage. That's important, because we have small, isolated grids in the Hawaiian islands and have to do the storage." He's also done integrated resource planning, working to create the optimal mix of renewable energy sources for a certain use as well as the path toward attaining that mix. Because ARCADIS has a lot of experience with hydroelectric power, he says, "I spend a lot of time doing hydroelectric feasibility studies, even dam inspections and that kind of thing."

Eight Hawaiian islands, eight power grids = extra energy challenges

Hawaii's geography echoes the urban-vs.-rural energy issues of the mainland, but with the Pacific Ocean thrown in to make things harder.

"The state has 1.2 million people, and basically they're all on Oahu," Harper laughs. (In fact, about 75% of them are, with virtually all the rest on the islands of Hawaii and Maui.) Each island has an individual power grid. The state would like to build an undersea cable system to connect these into one grid, allowing Oahu to take advantage of power generated elsewhere.

Color map of Hawaii with wind chart information
In this wind power resource map for Hawaii's eight islands, white indicates poor resource potential, purple=excellent, red=outstanding, and blue=superb. [ENLARGE] (Illustration courtesy NREL.)

"People propose to put wind turbines on the rural outer islands, where there are also factories, refineries, and landfills. Right now there are plans to put big wind farms on Molokai and Lanai. Those islands are economically depressed, but residents still aren't sure they want their wind energy to go to Honolulu."

Despite hurdles like these, Harper is confident that his field will continue to grow in Hawaii. "People in the renewables industry are not that worried by the current economic downturn because the industry has had such explosive growth. The economy has a much bigger impact on the large landowners, farmers, ranchers, and small business owners who are excited about doing renewable energy but are suffering from a lack of cash flow. But there's a whole spectrum of people on that curve: some are hesitant to hire a consultant like me to do a feasibility study even though it's to their advantage to invest in infrastructure, but some people get it and jump in with both feet."

Getting things built on the fast track

Harper sees plenty of contrasts between a job in industry and at a university. As a consultant, "nobody just gives you the work; you have to win it. So if you're not on a good team, you won't get work. Also, there's potential to spend all your time chasing work instead of doing work."

However, he loves the fast pace and the feeling of being on the cutting edge of the field. "We have access to all the latest, greatest information when we're working on a project. If you're at a university, you may be working with [industry] data that's four or five years older to avoid concerns about confidentiality [of proprietary information]."

But mainly, he likes seeing results. "In the academic world, if you think it would be perfect to do something you can write a letter to your [congress member] and someday it might happen. In the private sector, you work on a project and it actually gets built six months later. I find that really satisfying."


Positioning wind farms for profitability

Photogrpah of a large windmill turbine on a field
During construction, the wind turbine now powering the Rosebud casino in South Dakota dwarfed everything near it.

These days, wind farms are sprouting faster than seed corn on the northern Great Plains. But not every windswept mesa is a potential moneymaker, explains Ben Harper. "Wind power is dependent on the cube of the wind speed, so very small changes in wind speed have very large effects on the economic viability of a site."

Entrepreneurs can't afford to collect a sufficiently long series of wind data from a potential site; most get only a year's worth of observations. Under those circumstances, it would be a big help to know whether that year had been unusually blustery or calm.

As a student intern in UCAR's SOARS program, Harper explored the connection between wind speed and power on the northern Great Plains and the occurrence of climate events such as El Niño/Southern Oscillation (ENSO). "There's been a lot of work on hourly and seasonal wind changes, but interannual variability—the period from year to year—has been less studied," he explains. "Climate oscillations happen on that scale, so having a sense of their effect is important." He chose that region because he had done a study for a wind turbine at a casino owned by the Rosebud Sioux tribe in South Dakota.

Using 50 years of wind speed measurements collected at airports in North and South Dakota, Harper established a correlation between ENSO and wind speed and power. For example, El Niño years were correlated with a reduction in wind speed in South Dakota and similar but smaller reduction in North Dakota. Harper developed a statistical method for finding such connections in other parts of the world and establishing their amplitude. His results were published in Wind Engineering.

Related Links

Webcasts by Bret Harper and others
from the 2008 Planning for Seven Generations Conference: Indigenous & Scientific Approaches to Climate Change

NCAR Forecasts Will Help Xcel Energy Harness Wind
news release on related research, February 4, 2009


June 2009

One-minute mentor

What advice would you offer to someone interested in a career like your own?

Never give up on your passion

Bret Harper knows that students have heard this advice many times, but nonetheless, "it's totally true. I wouldn't have had the opportunities I've had if I hadn't done well in school."

He also admits that he didn't always follow that advice himself. "Early in high school, I didn't get[such good] grades because I wasn't interested in most of the classes. As a senior, I got good grades in the college-level classes because I got to pick what I wanted to do. Part of the secret is to do something you're interested in."

Your grades open the door to internships and other enrichment activities, Harper explains. "Internships can be valuable even if you don't end up in the same field where you start, because they help you figure out what you want to do. They also give you a work history that is as long and diverse as possible, so employers have someone to call and find out what kind of worker you are. I did internships every year in high school, so by the time I got out of college I had a work history that was seven summers long."

Bret Harper, Renewable energy consultant

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