UW–Madison engineering alum helps to light the way for renewable energy

Two rows of solar panels converging in the distance.
Solar panels at the O’Brien Solar Fields. Photo courtesy of Madison Gas and Electric.

Josh Cook, UW–Madison Geological Engineering class of 2015, became interested in renewable energy while participating in a summer intensive Mandarin language program in China. He lived in Tianjin, a city of over 15 million people, and also had the chance to visit Beijing and Shanghai, each of which has over 20 million residents. “These cities were much larger than any I’d been to in the United States,” said Cook. “It was a really cool experience.” Cook also witnessed the smog problem of large cities first-hand, “and that kind of set me on my way. I realized that this was something I could help out with and make a difference.”

Photo of man standing in front of solar panels
Josh Cook stands in front of a solar installation. Photo courtesy of EDF Renewables.

Cook grew up in Minnesota and became interested in engineering in high school. When it was time to apply for college, he toured UW–Madison and immediately fell in love. Though he initially pursued coursework in both international studies and engineering, Cook’s trip to China solidified his desire to pursue engineering as a career.

After graduation, Cook worked as a consultant, doing foundation design and other similar projects. But when an opportunity arose to join EDF Renewables, he jumped. EDF Renewables is a subsidiary of Électricité de France (EDF), which is headquartered in Paris and operates in 37 countries. Much of EDF’s purview is nuclear energy, because 80% of the energy in France comes from nuclear power plants, but in recent years the industry has seen a major shift toward more sustainable energy sources. Today, EDF Renewables is a robust and growing operation that operates in 22 countries.

Cook is a project engineer, which involves engineering procurement and design. “We take a project after it’s been developed—which includes the site permitting, land use, real estate—and then we design it all the way up through to the construction stage. We’re working with survey crews, civil earthwork contractors, electricians, mechanical contractors, foundation crews, pile drivers, concrete guys, utilities, landowners—you get to meet the local community. It’s a very satisfying career.”

A Badger comes back

One of Cook’s most exciting projects was the design for the O’Brien Solar Fields, which is currently the largest solar array in Dane County at 160 acres and over 60,000 panels. Located on the O’Brien family farm at the corner of Lacy Road and South Seminole Highway, the O’Brien Solar Fields will provide 20MW of locally generated solar energy to businesses, municipalities, and public institutions under Madison Gas and Electric’s Renewable Energy Rider. UW–Madison has agreed to purchase half of this output, which will account for approximately 5% of campus electricity use. As of early June 2021, the O’Brien Solar Fields were energized and operational.

Aerial image of solar panels in a field.
The O’Brien Solar Fields from the air, March 2021. Image courtesy of EDF Renewables.

“You get really good satisfaction knowing you’re building solar,” said Cook. “It’s quiet; you aren’t putting coal emissions into the air. And for a lot of our projects [like this one], we incorporate pollinator-friendly seed mixes and native grasses, so on top of providing a clean source of energy we’re supporting the ecosystem for butterflies, bees, and the rest of the food chain.”

The O’Brien Solar Fields also features two newer technologies that significantly improve its efficiency. Whereas older solar arrays were “fixed tilt,” meaning that the panels faced a single direction at all times, the panels at O’Brien employ “tilt racking,” which means that they rotate to track the sun from sunrise to sunset. In addition, the array is organized in “self-powered independent rows.” This feature permits greater installation flexibility, which in turn maximizes land use per megawatt, restricts downtime to individual rows, and provides greater reliability. Finally, the O’Brien Solar Fields are constructed using bifacial panels, which are spaced so that the sun’s reflection from one panel to the back of another adds an additional 10% energy production.

Education equals preparation

Cook credits UW–Madison with providing him a wide-ranging and highly applicable educational experience. As an undergraduate, he took coursework in geological engineering, electrical engineering, solar energy, and geology, and completed his electives in a renewables track. He also did a capstone project on geothermal energy at a local dairy farm. Cook found his classes with Professor James Tinjum—currently Chair of the Geological Engineering program—especially memorable, particularly a course on wind site design.

“The Geological Engineering major is actually a partnership between Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and the Geoscience department,” explained Professor Andrea Hicks, who is Interim Director of Sustainability Education and Research. “It’s exciting to see a graduate of this interdisciplinary program who is actively improving the sustainability of our campus community through his career.”

For students who wish to pursue a career in renewable energy, Cook suggests studying electrical and power engineering for those interested in wind and solar, and mechanical engineering and heat-transfer mechanics for those interested in geothermal energy. UW–Madison also offers several undergraduate and graduate certificate programs relating to sustainability, environment, and/or energy.

Of course, industry-specific classes are just one part of career preparation. Indeed, Cook highlighted something more fundamental about his college experience and how it has laid the groundwork for his success: “What I’m constantly doing [in my job] is trying to solve problems, work through solutions, and work with teams,” he said. “The biggest thing that UW­–Madison taught me was how to think and how to problem solve.”


By: Nathan Jandl