“Climate change is the greatest threat to human security and health,” says recent University of Washington graduate Alex Ratcliff. “I’ve always wanted to pursue a career that allows me to mitigate or even reverse the effects.”

With that goal already in mind when he arrived at the UW, Ratcliff didn’t waste time. He attended a science and engineering fair his first quarter on campus. There, he picked up a flyer for UW Solar, a student-run organization. “It’s the most beneficial thing that could have happened to me,” he says of his involvement with the club.

Joining clubs and attending events geared toward exploring career paths helps students develop their interests, discover opportunities and start building a network of peers and potential mentors. And, as Ratcliff can attest, it’s also a great way to get some real-life work experience.

Learning on the job

Over the next four years, two evenings a week, Ratcliff joined other members of UW Solar to discuss current and future projects. The club’s roughly 40 members come from a range of disciplines, from engineering to business to urban planning. Since forming in 2013, UW Solar has worked toward sustainable power production on campus to reduce the University’s overall carbon footprint — and Ratcliff played a crucial role during his time as an undergraduate.

“Alex was always an enthusiastic participant and a fast learner. Right away he got involved, and he participated in almost every project since then,” says Jan Whittington, faculty adviser and associate professor of urban design and planning.

Acting as consultants, students at UW Solar learn on the job by working on feasibility studies, reviewing designs, submitting projects for bid and eventually collaborating with contractors to install solar arrays. To secure funding for new projects, members also spend a considerable amount of time writing grant proposals.

It’s hard work, but it’s worth it: UW Solar estimates it has saved the university from producing about 300 metric tons of carbon dioxide — equivalent to about 33,000 gallons of gasoline, 650 barrels of oil or 325,000 pounds of coal.

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A project close to home

Ratcliff’s first project with UW Solar was significant: overseeing solar installations on three west campus residence halls (Maple, Alder and Elm). “I was living in Maple Hall at the time,” Ratcliff recalls. “During my second week with UW Solar, I was labeled a project designer. I got to go up on the roof, design the system, see the solar arrays installed and monitor them.”

Ratcliff and other UW Solar members were involved in every aspect of the project, from conducting a feasibility study to securing $565,000 in funding from the Washington State Department of Commerce and Seattle City Light.

Completed in January 2017 in partnership with the Clean Energy Institute and UW Housing & Food Services, the solar power system generates more than 107,000 kilowatt hours per year — the equivalent of around 75 metric tons of CO2 produced by a typical power plant. It also provides data to UW researchers working to develop more efficient solar energy systems.

Leading the charge for sustainability

Ratcliff soon took on a leadership role as an advocate for sustainability, becoming vice president of UW Solar and continuing to oversee significant projects. The University’s new Life Sciences Building, which opened in September 2018, features innovative panels that both provide shade to the building and generate enough electricity to power the lights in all the office spaces.

As Ratcliff’s expertise grew, he contributed to a 30-year solar energy plan to maximize solar photovoltaic capacity on all buildings across campus. He was also involved in coordinating sustainable features, such as solar battery storage systems and electric car charging stations, for a strategic plan to electrify UW Transportation Services.

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Ratcliff’s efforts didn’t stop there. He worked on a feasibility study for solar installations in the UW Greek system — and helped with schematic designs for solar array installations on the Hans Rosling Center for Population Health (currently under construction) and the newly reopened Burke Museum.

A bright future

Since graduating in June with his bachelor’s in environmental engineering, Ratcliff has found employment at PAE Engineers, a global leader in sustainable engineering design.

As he continues along his career path in the sustainable building industry, Ratcliff hopes to keep using his skills to produce net-positive buildings — those that clean and produce more water and energy than they use.

So far, he’s finding the direction of his career rewarding: “I’ve always wanted to work on projects that I can see fulfilled and have a positive impact.”

Learn more about the University of Washington at uw.edu.