Sustainability Spotlight: Travis Kwee, Rice Solar House leader

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Travis Kwee of Baker College is a sophomore majoring in Mechanical Engineering and minoring in Energy and Water Sustainability. We met with Travis to talk about his involvement and leadership in several on-campus environmental organizations, as well as his career interests, favorite news sources, and his love of baking.

Where are you from?
Travis Kwee: I’m from the Bay area of California.

When you lived out there did you spend a lot of time outdoors?
TK: I did! I was in Boy Scouts so we went on a lot of camping trips all over California and Oregon. We also had a yearly camping trip where we’d go to a Buddhist temple with eighty people, so it has always been a big part of the way I am.

Did being from California influence your environmental interests?
TK: It definitely instilled good environmental standards. In my opinion, everything in California has certain standards like “everyone should recycle because that’s just what you do,” whereas after coming here, the contrast made me realize how people in different places are not on the same page and how much needs to be done. I don’t think if I had stayed in California for college I would have been as much of an environmentalist as I am now.

Is there a particular environmental issue that is your top issue, the one you follow most closely?
TK: I have two for different reasons. The first one is renewable energy because it is one of the main things that I can impact as an engineer. The second one is food waste because it’s one of the easiest things to correct if you make a personal choice to do so. If you can get a significant portion of the population to reduce their food waste, there would be an enormous positive impact on world hunger, global food supply, energy usage, and water pollution.

Speaking of being an engineer, what exactly do you hope to do after you graduate?
TK: I really want to work in renewable energy. Lately, I have also been considering the possibility of working in corporate sustainability. If you have a product that you are making 100,000 of at a time, and you make some small change that reduces the amount of hazardous waste or unrecyclable trash, you can prevent literally tons of waste. I am also considering working in the green building industry. There are architectural firms that hire engineers to make incredible energy efficient buildings. Those types of projects inspire other architects and builders to change the mindset and trajectory of how buildings are made.

Related to your interest in renewable energy and sustainable buildings, you’re the president of Rice Solar House. Tell us about your involvement with that.
TK: I’ve been interested in sustainable buildings since I heard the common statistics that buildings take up 40% of the energy we consume. A lot of that is unnecessary heating and cooling, as well as inefficient lighting and water usage. I have been interested in the Solar Decathlon since sophomore year of high school. I actually looked for universities that either had a team going or had the ability to launch a team. Rice was perfect because it’s very open to student initiatives and it also had a team in 2009. Hopefully we will be accepted into the Solar Decathlon competition and will actually be able to complete. Our main goal is building a solar powered house so that average homeowners in Houston can see that this is entirely possible, financially viable, and environmentally sustainable.

How can students get involved with Rice Solar House?
TK: They can just send me an email. We have general meetings on the first Saturday of every month, where our different sub-teams coordinate with each other as part of the design process.

You are also the EcoRep for Baker College. What are your plans for greening Baker College this year?
TK: I tackle recycling awareness and food waste awareness on a daily basis. I plan on giving environmentally themed presentations to Baker Cabinet once a month. I also have a bunch of signs that are hopefully a little bit funny but also kind of serious like, “Landfills are forever. Recycle!” In terms of the loftier long term goals, we want to put together a proposal for solar panels on the Baker roof. Since Jones’s project is going so well, if we could get solar panels on ours that would be a good use of our time.

What other environmental activities are you involved with?
TK: I’m involved with the Rice University Biodiesel Initiative. We take used cooking oil from Baker and Sid, collect it, filter it (which is kind of a messy, unappealing job), and then put it into a biodiesel reactor. We add some methanol and sodium hydroxide and after two days, it turns into this nice biodiesel that can be combined with normal diesel fuel for lawnmowers around campus. I am also involved with the Rice Environmental Club, the Rice Environmental Society, the Baker Environmental Committee, and the Rice Wildlife Conservation Corps.

Wow! How you manage to stay involved in so many activities at one time?
TK: I don’t think people seem to realize that when I am in seven organizations it is because a lot of them intersect. For example, I originally thought the food waste project was an EcoRep thing, but a lot of people were interested in doing an awareness campaign in the Environmental Club. In addition, students from ENST 302/SOCI 304 are interested in helping out or leading the actual auditing part of it of the project. Projects that start out in one area end up becoming a huge team effort by multiple organizations! It’s really not as much work as being part of an individual club with separate goals. We all have the same goal of making Rice more sustainable and there are a bunch of different ways to do that, and often times, they overlap. It’s not completely overwhelming since we are all working together.

In your free time, I understand that you’re a baker at Baker. Tell us about your baking experience.
TK: Baking is a huge part of my life because it’s a way to relieve stress and it also brings people together. Oftentimes I use baking as an incentive to encourage people to do more sustainable things. For example, last semester for the Green Dorm Initiative, I had a kickoff day where I spent six hours making about two hundred crepes. I gave them out to anybody who showed that they had signed up for the Green Dorm Initiative at Baker. By the end of the Green Dorm Initiative, Baker had the most points by far of all the residential colleges. People never say no to free stuff so I think it’s a great way to get people to just take a look at something that they wouldn’t normally take a look at it.

Where did you develop your baking skills?
TK: I have been baking since middle school. My sister liked to bake a lot. When she went to college, I stepped up and became the baker of the house. I’ve always enjoyed being able to give friends things on their birthdays, but I never had a lot of money to get stuff for them. I think it is more meaningful to spend a bunch of time making them something that is special to them rather than spending money on some gift that they may or may not like.

Do you have a favorite book, movie, or website for news about environmental topics that you’d like to recommend?
TK: One of the sites that I like is not specifically environmentally oriented. It is called UpWorthy. It’s the positive side of news and includes a lot of human rights and social justice articles as well as environmental news. I also like which has a lot environmental articles. I am constantly sharing different things on Facebook about environmentalism in terms of social justice, technology, and biodiversity!

Any final things that you would like to add?
TK: There was a recent article that I enjoyed about young Republican voters, who are not typically known for being into environment issues, questioning their Republican presidential candidates about what they would do for the environment. One of them said, “Look, we all live here. I don’t like waking up every morning knowing that I’m wrapping my hands around my nieces’ and nephews’ necks, choking them out with the exhaust that I’m emitting. … I want them to see the same things that I see when I go outside when they’re my age. And I think that in the current pathway we’re at, that’s not going to be a possibility.” That perfectly sums up why sustainability is important. Not because we are necessarily going to feel all the effects now, but because we owe it to future generations to not sit back and enjoy what we have at the expense of what they would have.