By: Namish Modi

The presence of heat, light and electricity is something many Canadians take for granted.

Aysha Cotterill, a Systems Design Engineering co-op student at Waterloo, worked as a research assistant for the Waterloo Institute for Sustainable Energy (WISE) in Spring 2020. The organization, a research centre of the University of Waterloo, facilitates research to improve global access to sustainable and affordable energy.

“It (sustainable and affordable energy) is a problem that can kind of feel distant, with most of us not ever having to think about that. We can trust every day when we wake up, we’ll have light and electricity,” says Cotterill.

While working at WISE, Cotterill learned that some people in Canada are living without reliable energy access.

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“I realized how complex this energy system is. And what surprised me was how many people in Canada were still living without reliable energy access, especially in remote communities,” says Cotterill. “I think that was one of the biggest takeaways and really drove me to continue working in this field in the future.”

During her time at the organization, Cotterill worked on a project focused on clean energy in Indigenous communities in Canada. Working on the project helped Cotterill develop an understanding of energy democracy as well as its ties to culture, policy and activism.

CEEIA Sustainability award trophy

At WISE, Waterloo students either work with the organization, or with its international partners in field placement positions as part of the Energy Access Internship Program. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, students who work with WISE’s international partners have been doing so remotely. In the past, students would have had the opportunity to work abroad.

“I think the most important thing is helping students understand how to use their academic background for social good,” says Ambika Opal, global programs and initiative manager at WISE.

WISE is the recipient of the 2020 Co-operative and Experiential Education (CEE) Employer Impact Award for Impact in Sustainability. The organization has also been named an honourable mention in the Impact in International Excellence Award category.

“We value and celebrate WISE’s contribution to the global sustainable energy effort and their inclusion of Waterloo’s standout co-op students to the cause,” says Jean Andrey, Dean of the Faculty of Environment at Waterloo. “By providing these opportunities to our students, WISE is helping them to develop important skills as individuals and helping lead us all towards a more sustainable future.”

Students continue to make profound impacts

As part of her sixth and final co-op term, Cotterill worked on a literature review about energy democracy.

I found there was a lot of trust placed in the students in terms of making decisions related to project direction. The mentorship I received during this co-op was extremely valuable, and I was able to learn a lot about energy access challenges in Canada and globally.

Aysha Cotterill, Systems Design Engineering co-op student

WISE manages a global network of 50+ energy access organizations through the Affordable Energy for Humanity Consortium (AE4H). The organizations include businesses, non-profits, academic institutions and social enterprises that work with communities without affordable access to energy.

Some of the organizations where co-op students have worked in the past year include Mandulis Energy in Uganda, Pamir Energy in Tajikistan, Jaza Energy in Tanzania and Badakhshon Energy in Afghanistan.

At Mandulis Energy, two students co-developed a mobile application for Ugandan farmers to share agricultural waste material with organizations who re-purpose the material into clean cooking fuels. A co-op student for WISE developed an educational game for high school and university students about energy and the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. For Badakhshon Energy, a student co-created a communications plan that helped empower community members to get involved in energy planning.

“Access to energy is certainly an issue in Canada, but it’s also an issue in almost every country around the world,” says Opal. “We need to work together with international partners in order to develop solutions that can work at scale for the world.”

Skills developed during work terms

Students have been employed at WISE and its partners in a variety of roles including communication officer, data science intern and research assistant.

Because of the international component to a lot of our internships, we’re helping students develop intercultural skills and communication skills. A lot of students have worked in-person in these countries, but now a lot of students are working virtually. So, we’re working really hard to build those same intercultural skills in a virtual environment.

Ambika Opal, global programs & initiative manager at WISE

The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic

Since a lot of the work associated with the organization requires students to visit other countries, the COVID-19 pandemic and its associated travel restrictions has presented challenges in terms of understanding issues on the ground for WISE.

Since employees sometimes work in different time zones, the organization has set up a dual-supervisor system. Students will work with both a supervisor in Canada and a supervisor located in the country or region where the organization they are working with is based.

Cotterill explains that the virtual platform was beneficial because it became easier to connect with researchers in different provinces or countries.