April 12, 2016

Max Zhang helps communities grow greener

From studying smog along Beijing’s streets to improving how U.S. interstate highways clear the exhaust to electrifying New York City parking spaces, engineer Max Zhang adds verdancy to vibrant communities.

Provided
Max Zhang discusses the role of community action in sustainability and the importance of developing an energy road map.

“For me sustainable communities are a process, they’re not a state,” said Zhang, associate professor of engineering and a fellow at Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future. Stepping beyond the borders of engineering classroom buildings, Zhang helps Cornell’s Community and Regional Development Institute build sustainably green localities. “It’s a process where community members aspire to a better place and strive to take local actions. My role as an engineer is either as an enabler or facilitator to achieve their goal.”

On many projects, Zhang has focused on the environment. He examined the air quality before, during and after the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Last year, Zhang guided Cornell students who had undertaken a project to reduce Tompkins County’s greenhouse gas output by 2050. The team produced reports that analyzed wind, hydropower, solar, biomass, geothermal heating and energy efficiency.

Among the first recipients of the Atkinson Center’s Academic Venture Fund grants in 2008, Zhang and his colleagues evaluated plug-in hybrid electric vehicles to understand the effects of electrifying transportation on energy use and emissions. With much greater use of electric vehicles on the horizon, this work – among many factors – helped convince New York City to create charging stations for 20 percent of the city’s parking spaces.

“I helped to pass local laws to be EV ready – electric vehicle ready,” Zhang explained. “So as these cars come to the market, we’ll have enough charging stations to support electric vehicles.”

In Hawaii, Zhang helped to design a 700-acre low energy consumption community to alleviate dependency on imported fossil fuels, which has burdened the state’s economy. The master plan – offering sustainable energy solutions, conserving natural resources and reducing energy demand – contained 1,000 residential units, retail businesses, industry, a hospital, a wastewater treatment plant and schools.

On the mainland, fossil fuel-powered vehicles still dominate society. Years before regulations take effect to mitigate the impact of traffic emissions, Zhang offers ideas – such as green buffer zones between the highways and residential areas – on how to reduce their impact. “Many local communities have hot spots near highways and they aspire to take local actions to reduce emission impact now,” he said, by offering tools and guidelines for roadway design.

Said Zhang: “My work is about environmental and energy systems – and my focus is on making the world a more sustainable place, one community at a time.”