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What do you do?

When it comes to sustainability, Nikhil Bharadwaj has a different take on the “glass half empty, glass half full” metaphor.

“I’ve talked to people who are optimistic about sustainability and others who are pessimistic. The question isn’t whether the glass is half full or half empty because, in the end, the glass will always be half empty when you’re thirsty,” said Bharadwaj, an energy engineering student in Penn State’s College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

That message was the focal point of a TEDxPSU student competition talk that Bharadwaj gave in fall 2016 in an attempt to spread a message — that sustainability is imperative and offers numerous benefits to individuals, businesses and communities.

Bharadwaj’s passion for sustainability goes beyond words, and a quick look at his activities as a student make that clear. He landed two sustainability-focused internships in two countries, and helped install solar panels in a low-income community in a third country. He became accredited as a green associate through the Leadership in Engineering and Environmental Design (LEED) program. And he began implementing multiple sustainability initiatives on Penn State’s University Park campus and the surrounding State College community.

His work on these and other projects led to him being named to Penn State’s Student Sustainability Advisory Council and receiving the 2016 Penn State Student Sustainability Leadership Award.

But for Bharadwaj, sustainability isn’t about his own accolades or accomplishments — it’s something he can use to inspire others to find their passions and leave a positive impact on the world. Through his efforts, he aims to support the 17 Sustainable Development Goals outlined by the United Nations and adopted by countries worldwide.

Can you tell us about your background? How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and interesting career?

Bharadwaj grew up in Bangalore and Delhi, India, then came to the U.S. to attend Penn State for its energy engineering program. The program, he said, was the most comprehensive program in energy engineering, allowing students to build skills and knowledge in the systems involved in creating renewable and other types of energy as well as the economic and policy challenges facing businesses today.

After finding his passion on campus, he wasted no time in diving into as many sustainability activities as he could find. Through the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), he and a group of other Penn State students traveled to Juticalpa, Honduras, to install solar panels in a low-income region. The community relies on a pump for water. Because of the high cost of electricity in the area — nearly three times the cost of electricity in the U.S. — the community can’t afford to run the pump all the time.

“We worked with community members to install a four-kilowatt array of solar panels to power the pump, which cut their electricity bills in half,” he said. “In the end, one of the community leaders spoke to our group about how grateful he was and his life in general. He said he hoped the world would have more kids like us and ended up crying. It was a powerful experience.”

How is your work helping the community?

As vice president of the American Solar Energy Society (ASES), Bharadwaj has been working with other ASES members on a solar picnic table initiative. The table, slated to be unveiled in fall 2018 at the Student Farm at Penn State would allow students at the farm to charge cellphones and laptops at a picnic table powered by solar panels.

Another project he has been working on is related to electric bicycles, known as e-bikes. E-bikes are powered by a motor and allow people to drive up to 30 miles per hour and can go 20 miles on one charge. The batteries can be recharged using solar power or standard electricity.

Working with Joseph Cusumano, professor of engineering science and mechanics, Bharadwaj has been researching efficient ways to convert traditional bicycles to e-bikes. This involves installing a battery, a motor and a controller on the bike. For students commuting to campus, this could potentially save hundreds or thousands of dollars every year between money saved on gas, car insurance, parking permits and other expenses — in addition to reducing their carbon footprint. In the community, e-bikes could be a benefit in many ways, such as helping businesses make food deliveries more efficiently or aiding with police patrolling.

Bringing sustainability to communities has also been driving Bharadwaj. In fall 2016, he launched and led a solar tour of State College, part of the larger ASES National Solar Tour. The tour was a way that Bharadwaj could introduce people to the local sustainability initiatives and debunk myths about solar energy.

Can you tell us about your internships?

The role that businesses could have in bringing about sustainability changes became clear to Bharadwaj through two internships he completed. After his freshman year, he landed an internship in his hometown of Bangalore with Tata Power Solar Systems Limited. There, he learned how solar panels were created, helped to design and propose an off-grid, solar-powered bus station, and worked on photovoltaic panel construction and design.

During his sophomore year, he found an internship that would still allow him to make an impact in India as well as parts of Africa. As an intern in the Coca-Cola Company’s Global R&D division, in its Atlanta headquarters, he was helping the company conduct research on the viability and potential cost savings of new sustainability and resource productivity initiatives.

“One problem Coca-Cola was facing was that their coolers, like any other machine, break down,” he said. “Using data analytics and service logs, I helped to build a model that would predict how many failures you would see in 10 years compared to if you were to make a design change.”

The proposal that he and his department collaborated on, if implemented, has the potential to save the company upwards of $3 million to $5 million per year.

Bharadwaj also devised a cooler that could be powered off the electric grid. His proposal used a combination of solar power and phase-change materials, such as ice batteries, which can store energy for use later. During the day, the cooler would use solar power and store extra energy in the phase-change material. When the sun goes down, the phase-change material would kick in and provide power.

“Market studies show that, without cold products, sales go down,” he said. “I proposed an impact investment strategy that would allow Coca-Cola to potentially help people in Africa and India while increasing profits.”

Both internships were at the intersection of improving sustainability and business practices, which inspired Bharadwaj to obtain his certification as a LEED green associate. Becoming a green associate will allow him to assist companies or organizations planning to pursue LEED building certification. In the summer of 2017, he will be getting hands-on experience with those LEED skills as an intern with Schneider Electric, a multinational energy management corporation.

Those experiences also helped reshape Bharadwaj’s career goals. He rewrote his personal mission statement to include the “triple bottom line,” he said, which focuses core business strategies on people, profits and the planet.

“I can put a solar array on a few houses, but if I want to make an impact, I need to target people who are already making an impact, so I’m focusing on businesses,” he said.

This shift reiterates his core drive of impacting and influencing others in a way that he believes will make life better in the future through pollution reduction, energy efficiency and more.

But if he can only help people in one way, he said, it’s to help others find their passion.

“I believe that if you don’t leave something behind, you haven’t lived your life to its fullest,” he said. “There is no love at first sight with passion. Once you become involved in acting on something, that turns into passion, which fuels your success, and that success fuels your passion.”

What are your plans after graduation?

After graduation, he plans to launch a sustainability consulting practice, named Ubermensch, in honor of a defining philosophical tenet of Bharadwaj’s idols, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche.

“We are the last generation that can have a significant impact in averting the climate crisis but we also have the opportunity to be the first generation of climate heroes. We can implement sustainability from the ground up, by starting right here, in our own communities,” he said.