Different perspectives expand the possibilities of innovation, yet women and people of color remain underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields. Attracting people with various backgrounds to work in clean energy starts with piquing their interest in STEM in school. That’s why the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has been supporting student competitions for 35 years.
In 1988, DOE launched the collegiate Advanced Vehicle Technology Competitions. More than 30,000 students from 95 institutions have participated in them to date. Most recently, DOE selected 15 universities—including five minority-serving institutions (MSIs)—to participate in the four-year EcoCar Electric Vehicle Challenge, where students engineer a battery-electric vehicle using industry-grade components, tools, and methods.
Soon after, in 2002, DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) launched the Solar Decathlon to prepare the next generation of building professionals. Competitors design and build high-performance buildings that run on renewable power. The Solar Decathlon has engaged more than 25,000 students and involved more than 40 countries. Check out the 2023 winners.
Today, DOE funds an array of competitions to prepare the next generation of STEM professionals and entrepreneurs, while making sure the next generation looks like America. The goal is to give students an on-ramp to the renewable energy field, with opportunities to engage with industry professionals and their local communities.
Renewable Energy Collegiate Competitions
On April 16, EERE’s Bioenergy Technologies Office announced five winning teams in the AlgaePrize, which encourages students to design and develop technologies to help scale up algae production for low-cost sustainable fuels. Each team won $10,000, the Grand Champion received an additional $5,000, and the winners are invited to present their research at the Algae Biomass Summit in Wisconsin this fall, where they can network and make professional connections. Gilberto Ramos Ribera, a competitor on the FitoEnergy team, said, "Our group has a diverse set of nationalities, with people from Perú, Colombia, Chile, and Puerto Rico."
EERE supports other student competitions in renewable energy:
- The Marine Energy Collegiate Competition and Hydropower Collegiate Competition incentivize students to create solutions for hydropower challenges and the burgeoning marine energy industry. The competitions have so far engaged 14 MSIs, including Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander (AANAPISI), Hispanic-serving institutions (HSIs), tribal colleges, and historically Black colleges and universities.
- In the Solar District Cup, students design, model, and optimize distributed energy systems for buildings that share an electrical distribution feeder. This year’s competitors include teams from 39 schools, including 11 MSIs—doubling the rate of MSI finalists over the past two years. Check out the 2023 Solar District Cup finalists.
- The Collegiate Wind Competition invites students to design, build, and test a prototype wind turbine, and develop a site plan and cost-of-energy analysis for a hypothetical wind farm. Competitors have included 12 MSIs, including 8 HSIs and 6 AANAPISIs.
- The Geothermal Collegiate Competition prepares students to scale up geothermal technologies in a way that prioritizes the unique needs of individual communities. The top three teams in 2022 won more than $17,000 combined for designing solutions for tribal and under-resourced communities.
Creativity and Entrepreneurship
DOE is engaging young people in STEM to inspire the next generation of innovators and leaders. At the high school level, students are competing in FIRST Robotics, a five-week-long challenge committed to fostering, cultivating, and preserving a culture of equity, diversity, and inclusion.
In March 2023, EERE sponsored the FIRST Chesapeake District Championship in Virginia (watch the video, below). Those regional winners will compete in the FIRST World Championships in Texas, April 19–22.
Student teams also participated in DOE’s Inclusive Energy Innovation Prize, which supports entrepreneurship and innovation in communities historically underserved in federal climate and energy technology funding. In 2022, DOE awarded $3.6 million to 18 groups developing the next wave of diverse clean energy business owners, executives, and workers, and creating solutions for sustainable development.
Diversity in STEM and the clean energy workforce is vital to creating a sustainable future. Whether you enter a competition or spread the word so others can, you’re a Clean Energy Champion who can help close these critical workforce gaps.