New one-of-a-kind master’s program focuses on high-tech energy conservation

thermostat-1Last year when Google paid $3.2 billion for Nest, a startup that makes smart thermostats, the press joked that the internet giant would soon be posting advertisements on people’s home thermostats. But by May, Nest announced that it had used its devices to shave peak-demand energy use by a whopping 55 percent in its first test program. The company offers rewards to homeowners who allow the thermostat—which learns people’s habits over time—to adjust indoor temperatures during the hottest days.

Now, Resource and Energy Demand Analysis (REDA), a new professional master’s program launching at UW-Madison in fall 2015, will train analytically minded students to evaluate the massive amounts of data being gathered by such smart devices. It’s the only training program of its kind in the U.S. or the world.

“We designed the REDA degree to meet the growing need for professionals in consulting, utilities, organizations promoting renewables and other areas of resource conservation,” says Bill Provencher, professor of agricultural and applied economics who has been working in energy consulting for the past five years and who will direct REDA.

Provencher has seen first-hand the skills gap. “So many college graduates care deeply about the environment and issues like climate change. This degree will help them satisfy their desire to work toward a low-carbon future while also earning a good living,” he says.

Madison happens to be one of four cities in the U.S. where resource and energy consulting firms cluster, so the REDA program will draw on the expertise of local professionals to enhance student learning and advise on curriculum.

“The other three places where REDA graduates can plan to work are the Bay Area, Boston and Boulder,” Provencher says, “not bad places to start a career.

“We’ve added value to the curriculum by including a practicum that simulates a workplace experience using real data,” notes Barbara Forrest, who is helping design REDA. “At the end, students will have a tangible credential to show employers. And students can complete the degree in only 10 months – it’s accelerated so they can get out into a job as quickly as possible. This would be a great track for environmental studies majors who enjoy quantitative work,” she added.

The job market is also international, with Europe leading the world in using smart technologies like water and electricity meters to encourage conservation. Utilities everywhere are trying to get their customers to save, and all those management programs need careful evaluation to see what works. REDA graduates will be those analysts.

“Just Google Nest, and see what pops up on your screen,” jokes Provencher.   “What seems at first to be a narrow field of work and research is exploding.”

To learn more about the REDA program: