With Great Power: Graduate student intern helps Village of New Paltz go green

Shweta Sawant ’19g (Electrical Engineering) thinks often about the responsibility that comes with expertise.

“In any profession, when you go to get your degree you take a pledge: that we are going to solve problems for society,” she said. “When I gained my bachelor’s degree back in India, I absorbed the idea in my mind, and I guess in my soul, that if I’m gaining a degree I have to utilize it for society, not just for myself.”

In only about two years as a resident of New Paltz, Sawant has lived up to that philosophy, making significant contributions to a community effort to bring new renewable energy technologies to local water treatment processes.

Sawant came to the United States from Mumbai, India, for SUNY New Paltz’s Master of Science in Electrical Engineering program.

“I knew that technical education flourished in the West,” she said. “I thought that to take a step forward I had to go out of my comfort zone and come to study in the U.S. I feel fortunate that I was able to come straight to New York, which was a dream of mine.”

At a campus Career Fair in 2018, Sawant met Ted Nitza, senior project manager at Walden Environmental Engineering and chair of the Village of New Paltz’s Environmental Policy Board.

Nitza is a registered Professional Engineer in New York, specializing in drinking water, wastewater and other water quality issues and challenges. He was looking for a research intern to help evaluate options for adding a renewable energy generation system to the village’s sewage treatment process.

“The process of treating wastewater to be clean enough to return to the Wallkill River has a naturally occurring by-product: Methane,” Nitza said. “Methane is a significant greenhouse gas but it is also high in energy value.”

It quickly became clear that Sawant was an ideal collaborator. Her research skills and electrical engineering know-how were instrumental in identifying systems that could help the village save money and reduce its environmental footprint.

“Shweta demonstrated insight and effectiveness researching New Paltz as a facility that could harness this gas by-product and convert it to electricity,” Nitza said.

A biogas generator could bring cost and carbon savings to the Village of New Paltz’s water treatment processes

As a long-time participant with public sector projects, Nitza knew that actually implementing such a system would require more than just good science. He and Sawant began working to gain the confidence of village decision makers and constituents.

“We had a responsibility to present our findings to the Environmental Policy Board in a way that would enable them to understand the essence of the research,” Sawant said. “I learned that as an engineer, if you are presenting something it has to be very precise, but it also has to make sense.”

Many STEM professionals find it hard to develop proficiency in clear communication, but Sawant excelled in the presentation. The Environmental Policy Board endorsed her recommendations and, as of this writing, village trustees are relying on her research to move the project forward.

“Harnessing methane for electricity could be an excellent outcome of Shweta’s work,” said New Paltz Mayor Tim Rogers. “The Village of New Paltz is focused on projects like this to better respond to the challenges of climate change. Shweta’s work has prepared us to take the right next steps.”

Sawant graduated from New Paltz in May 2019, and has advanced to a position as a programmatic technology associate with AdKernel LLC, a software firm based in New Jersey.

She looks back on her internship as a foundational professional moment, which tested, and ultimately affirmed, her own personal standards of applying expertise for society’s benefit.

“I didn’t know about this internship, what it would do for me or what impact it would make for the village, when I began – I just did my part,” Sawant said. “But after some time I realized that I was making a difference. I feel good that I was able to do at least a small part for this town.”

Visit the Center for International Programs for more information about how SUNY New Paltz creates opportunities for students from around the world, and connect with the Division of Engineering Programs to learn more about undergraduate and graduate experiences in mechanical, computer and electrical engineering.