Students' Evaluation of Competing Alternative Energy Options for a Sustainability Assessment

This page authored by Hitesh Soneji, City College of San Francisco
City College of San Francisco, Engineering and Technology
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Initial Publication Date: June 25, 2012 | Reviewed: July 21, 2015


In this team exercise, students take on the role of hired sustainability consultants to do a sustainability assessment of a proposed wind farm and a proposed hydropower station. There are many methods for doing this type of assessment. In this exercise, the students will use a method typically referred to as a multi-criteria weighted assessment. It is similar to a weighted average of different attributes of each project that contribute to the sustainability discourse. In doing this assessment students will critically assess the pros and cons of 2 different power stations. Students are asked to discuss within their groups to resolve uncertainties and disagreements about attributes and scoring. Students are asked to eventually work towards agreement for each attribute, weight, and score.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

I believe my main goal in this exercise is for the students to discover that sustainability and decisions around sustainability are not clear cut and carry a lot of variations based on the subjective priorities of the evaluators. It also asks students to work with each other and compromise where they may heavily disagree, something that is required in real assessments like this one. A multi criteria assessment like this is key in stakeholder participation which is also important in sustainability as well as in helping projects that are more sustainable than others to actually move forward.

Context for Use

This exercise is conducted in an entry level GE science course at City College of San Francisco. It is used in a lecture setting with groups of 3-4 students, typically towards the end of the semester. The exercise typically takes several hours spread between two class sessions and as homework. This exercise could easily be adapted; i.e. simplified by constraining attributes, or more more complex by requiring an additional number and/or type of sustainability attributes. The exercise has also been adapted and delivered in an online version of the same course.

Description and Teaching Materials

The handout is linked below. Please refer to the handout first. It refers to two proposed alternative energy projects. More on those below.

Student Handout for "Dam Evidence: Wind or Hydro?" (Acrobat (PDF) 113kB Jun21 12)
Slides for "Dam Evidence: Wind or Hydro?" (Acrobat (PDF) 21kB Jun21 12)

I usually try to find current articles that provide both sides of an argument for a proposed project. Sometimes this is challenging, but there are many good sources, including newspapers and journals, such as Science.

Example Articles:
Wind Farm: Proposed wind farm in Mower County gets favorable response at Austin meeting
Hydro Power: Councils oppose West Coast hydro dam

Teaching Notes and Tips

It is important to understand the mechanics of the assessment before trying to deliver this activity. I would suggest trying it yourself and see where confusion develops. There is room to improve the instructions as well as accompanying slide sets. Students often conflate the "importance" of an attribute and each project's "score" for an attribute. Clarifying this is very important. There is also a lot of ambiguity over what an attribute is. I typically try to guide students to generate as specific, measurable, and clear attributes as possible. For example "Good for nature" is a very bad attribute that is nearly impossible to measure and/or verify.


Typically I do this by asking groups to share their attributes, final scores, and thoughts on the assessment process. A great question to ask is this "Did your gut feel which project was better confirm or conflict with the outcome of weighted assessment". Why? What issues do you see with this assessment, etc. How can it be improved.

Answers to these questions and the discussions around them can be very indicative of how the process went as well as help to gel the concepts being delivered.

References and Resources