Department of Energy

Solar District Cup Heats Up

January 8, 2020

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35 Student Teams Advance in Collegiate Competition

Editor's note: this blog was originally posted on NREL's website here.

On Dec. 12, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solar Energy Technologies Office announced 35 student teams from 32 collegiate institutions as finalists in the Solar District Cup Collegiate Design Competition. These teams were selected from the 61 teams announced as participants at the start of competition in September.

The Solar District Cup is a new competition, led by DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), that challenges multidisciplinary student teams to design and model optimized distributed solar energy systems for a campus or urban district by integrating solar, storage, and other technologies. The goal of the competition is to inspire students to create integrated energy solutions for real-world districts, and expose them to the kind of next-generation skill sets that are needed in the growing solar industry.

When the competition began, teams were assigned to one of three district use case divisions, each composed of an existing urban district or campus interested in pursuing increased distributed energy development and deployment within their jurisdiction.

The finalists were chosen after competing teams submitted their Progress Deliverable Packages at the end of November, showing the progress they had made since starting the competition. The 35 teams selected as finalists will continue developing their projects before presenting to a panel of industry judges at Solar and Energy Storage Southeast in Atlanta on April 19-20, 2020. There, three winners will be chosen.

“It's really exciting to see students coming together to reimagine the energy landscape,” says Dr. Becca Jones-Albertus, director of the DOE Solar Energy Technologies Office. “As we see the amount of solar and other distributed energy resources transforming the grid, new designs to operate electricity use on the distribution system are critical. I can't wait to see what ideas the teams and their partners come up with now and in future competitions.”

Program Partnerships Prove Crucial to Competitor Education

The success of the inaugural collegiate design challenge has been largely achieved with the help of the Solar District Cup partners, including Aurora Solar Inc., HeatSpring LLC, and Solar Power Events. Through these partnerships, students and faculty advisors alike have learned about solar system designs through numerous program amenities, including a Warmup Workshop at Solar Power International in Salt Lake City, an online training course through HeatSpring, access to Aurora Solar’s design software, and virtual “Office Hours” with industry professionals.

The Solar District Cup organizers are grateful to the partners who are embracing this new competition. “We’re honored to be collaborating with our industry partners to bring a market perspective into the competition and to serve the students as they launch their careers,” says Travis Lowder, NREL project manager and one of the competition organizers.

As students prepare for their final competition event in April, they’ll take additional training courses and further develop their district use case system designs. In the first half of the competition, students have focused on their own progress. Now they’ll be going head-to-head against the other teams in their district use case division.

The Solar District Cup 2020 district use case partners are Ball State University, JBG SMITH, and New Mexico State University. These partners provided students with data to ensure the districts are accurately represented and planned around.

Students in the Ball State University and New Mexico State University divisions are designing systems for the existing campus environment. In the JBG SMITH division, students are designing around the Crystal City portion of the National Landing neighborhood JBG SMITH is developing near Washington D.C.

“JBG SMITH is excited to work alongside NREL and the students. This is an important step to the development of a renewable energy strategy,” says Kim Pexton, JBG SMITH vice president of sustainability.

Students and faculty advisors listen intently as Solar District Cup organizers present at the Warmup Workshop at Solar Power International.
Students and faculty advisors listen intently as Solar District Cup organizers present at the Warmup Workshop at Solar Power International.

A Bright Future for Hard-Working Students

The Solar District Cup organizers anticipate that the program will prepare students for the solar energy workforce, whether in design, engineering, finance, or other disciplines. Both the organizers and their partners believe that the students who have completed the competition will be equipped to start their careers.

“Overall, we’re blown away by the interest in the competition and the impact that the challenge seems to be having on preparing competing students for careers in the solar and energy industries,” says Joe Simon, NREL engineer and one of the competition’s organizers.

Competition partners also see the value this program creates for students. Robert Koester, Ball State University professor of architecture and director of the Center for Energy Research/Education/Service, says he can’t wait to see the solutions designed by students competing in the Ball State division. “We look forward to the integral, whole-systems design interventions to be proposed by the participating students—an experience that will position them well for entering the emerging low-carbon energy industry.”

As students prepare for careers in renewable energy, their participation in the Solar District Cup 2020 is providing invaluable experience. And as the organizers prepare for the next class of competitors, they hope to see continued expansion of the program.

“We’re eager to see the student solutions in this inaugural year,” says Sara Farrar, NREL project leader and competition organizer, “and grow this competition through enhanced rules, collegiate institution participation, and industry partnerships for the 2021 competition!”

The Solar District Cup will soon begin planning the Class of 2021 program. If you or someone you know is interested in participating as a student, faculty advisor, partner, or industry mentor, please contact the Solar District Cup organizers.