Helping companies with their bottom line—and their carbon footprint—taught this mechanical engineering graduate student about a new path forward

Margaret Huettner ’21 ’22G relished her work with the Industrial Assessment Center (IAC) at Lehigh University because she was not only helping businesses save on energy bills, she was helping the planet, too.

Huettner graduated this past spring with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering after earning her bachelor’s in the same field.

With the IAC, she was part of a team of students and faculty providing recommendations to businesses in the region on how they can lower their energy costs and reduce their carbon footprint. 

“The program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, so to the client, it’s a free assessment,” says Huettner. “All we’re asking for is a few hours of their time. In that sense, it’s a very attractive program to these small businesses.”

So, for example, if a company has a warehouse that’s continually lit regardless of the presence of employees, the IAC team might suggest installing motion sensors and LED lighting, which uses less energy and lasts longer than incandescent bulbs.

Following each assessment, the IAC team calculates the approximate cost of the upgrades and the resulting annual energy savings. Huettner says those numbers allow businesses to see the “payback period,” or the amount of time it will take for them to see the return on their investment.

“A common recommendation that we make for clients is related to air compressors, which can be a major source of energy consumption and quickly add to the plant’s monthly electricity bill,” she says. “One of my first visits with the IAC was to a company that produced pureed foods. We recommended they reduce the set pressure, use cooler outdoor air as the intake, and do formal leak checks throughout the year. We estimated a total annual savings of about $12,000 if they implemented all of our recommendations, which is not a negligible amount for a smaller-sized company.”

Rather than be the engineer who creates technology that has a negative environmental impact on the world, I want to be part of the team that is fixing the issues that that technology has caused us.
Margaret Huettner, graduate student, mechanical engineering and mechanics

Huettner became interested in energy efficiency and renewable energy as an undergraduate. She was encouraged to work with the Industrial Assessment Center by one of her professors, Alparslan Oztekin, a professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics and director of the IAC.

“There are undergraduate and graduate students that work with the IAC, and it’s just a good learning experience for us,” Huettner says. “We’re the ones that write the energy audit recommendations to give to the companies.”

She sees the energy industry as the perfect application of her mechanical engineering skills.

“Rather than be the engineer who creates technology that has a negative environmental impact on the world,” she says, “I want to be part of the team that is fixing the issues that that technology has caused us.”

Fixing those issues was part of the impetus for her decision to attend graduate school, for which Huettner received plenty of support and counsel from her faculty advisor, Christina Haden, a teaching associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics.

And while Huettner did apply to other graduate programs, she ultimately decided that she “loved the Lehigh community too much to leave.” She cites her strong connections with faculty and friends, as well as the beauty of the campus and the charm of Bethlehem as big draws. As a master’s student, Huettner continued playing saxophone and piano with jazz groups on campus.

Huettner considered pursuing a job in renewable energy or waste-to-energy conversion but decided instead to accept a position in the field that she’s developed a passion for while at Lehigh. She's now working with The Stone House Group, an energy auditing company in South Bethlehem.

—Margie Peterson is a freelance contributor for the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science

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Alparslan Oztekin

Mechanical engineering and mechanics professor Alparslan Oztekin directs the Industrial Assessment Center at Lehigh University.

Christina Haden

Christina Haden, teaching associate professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics