Students research sustainable engineering at Isles of Shoals

Marguerite Lorenzo explains how the reverse osmosis machine that was recently installed at Appledore Island works.

ISLES OF SHOALS — College interns working at Appledore Island are helping engineers develop methods of sustainability that might benefit electricity consumers

At the Shoals Marine Laboratory, four students majoring in engineering and another studying communications are working on seven projects related to sustainability this summer. Four of those projects involve looking at electrical consumption on the island.

The sustainable engineering internship program, sponsored by Unitil, began in 2006 and has grown into a competitive opportunity for undergraduate students to get hands-on experience in the field.

Until the mid-2000s, the lab was powered exclusively by generators which used over 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel each year. With newer techniques and technology, scientists cut the diesel consumption to 1,146 gallons in 2018 by using a wind turbine, solar panels, self-composting toilets and rechargeable batteries.

“The challenges have become a bit more complicated. It used to be that there was enough specific data monitoring to go on to keep four engineers busy for a month, and I think now we’ve evolved the systems in the ways that you’ve seen that the complexity of what we’re up against has gone up. I think that’s a benefit to the students,” said Mike Rosen, director of operations at Shoals Marine Laboratory.

Last Tuesday, sustainable engineering interns Colleen Tobin and Sawyer Hall, both seniors at UNH, and Valentine Starnes and Marguerite Lorenzo, both juniors at Cornell University, gathered in the lab’s dining hall to discuss their sustainability projects.

Communications intern Anna Canny, a junior at Cornell, was also there. She generates photos for Unitil and is creating a podcast.

“We all work on three different projects in pairs,” Lorenzo said. “My first project is one I’m working on with Val and it’s working on powering a reverse osmosis machine solely off excess solar energy. The goal for that project is to see how much of that energy that machine draws and determine how much excess energy we have on certain days.”

Lorenzo explained that there is a lot of potential energy created when the sun hits solar panels, but researchers are wondering how to best store that energy for future use.

Hall is working on an online dashboard that shows the different systems on the island and how they are performing.

“It will serve as a tool for the public to see what’s going on at the island in terms of energy,” Hall said. “It will also show the engineers what’s going on to see how well the grid is performing.”

The dashboard should be accessible to the public by the end of the year.

Alec O’Meara, media relations manager at Unitil, explained how the company became involved with the internship program at Shoals Marine Laboratory last week.

O’Meara said Michael Dalton, retired president and chief operating officer of Unitil Corporation, became involved because he was interested in the concept of sustainability on the island. After his retirement, a stipend was created to ensure Unitil’s engineers continued participating in an advisory role.

O’Meara said the information they receive from the work being done at Shoals Marine Laboratory is valuable for their engineers and can help their customers as they work toward more cost-efficient sustainable energy practices.

“Out there, you get to see it happen. And when you see it happen, and you kind of watch all the pieces click together, it gives you more than a simulation can give you,” O’Meara said.

O’Meara said Unitil has an energy efficiency team which provides customers with information about the company’s sustainable practices. Sharing stories about the interns’ research offers ideas on how customers can take steps to lessen their impact on the environment.

For more information about the sustainable engineering internship, visit

Shoals Marine Laboratory is jointly operated by Cornell University and the University of New Hampshire.