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NREL Challenge

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Solar District Cup

Challenging multidisciplinary student teams to design and model solar-plus-storage systems for a campus or district.
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Overview

Challenge Overview

Welcome to the U.S. Department of Energy Solar District Cup Collegiate Design Competition!

The Solar District Cup challenges multidisciplinary student teams to design and model distributed energy systems for a campus or district. These systems integrate solar and battery storage across mixed-use districts or groups of buildings served by a common electrical distribution feeder. The competition engages students in engineering, finance, urban planning, sustainability, and other disciplines or degree programs to reimagine how energy is generated, managed, and used in a district.

The Solar District Cup launched in 2019. Learn more about the past classes of competitors, including winners and district use cases: 

Student teams assume the role of a solar-plus-storage developer to produce a conceptual design and financing proposal as well as analyze electric distribution grid interactions for a district use case. Teams compete in one of multiple divisions, each structured around a district use case. Winning teams are selected by industry judges for each division, based on the quality of their proposed solutions. The strongest submissions provide solutions that maximize the district’s energy offset and financial savings over the contracted or useful life of the system while integrating aesthetic, infrastructure, and community considerations. 

Students submit written deliverable packages for evaluation and present their solutions to judges live at an online competition event, at which the winners are determined and announced.       

            

APPROACH

The Solar District Cup is designed to inspire students to consider new career opportunities, learn industry-relevant skills, engage with the professional marketplace, and prepare to lead the next generation of workforce in distributed solar energy. As competitors, students:

  • Gain experience with innovative renewable energy design
  • Develop real-world solutions that shape the future of solar energy
  • Engage with industry professionals to forge relationships and connections that aid participating students’ transition to the solar energy workforce upon graduation
  • Compete to earn a trophy and national recognition.

The Solar District Cup encourages collaboration between academia and industry. The program seeks to establish public-private partnership and demonstrate corporate and nonprofit industry co-sponsorship.

 

NEW WAYS TO PARTICIPATE IN THE CLASS OF 2022-2023

New to the Class of 2022-2023 are a few updates to the way in which students can participate. The competition will accept collegiate team registration on a rolling basis, which means students can begin work and access learning resources on a timeline that best aligns with their academic calendar.  Student teams will receive their assigned district use case and access to modeling tools on a rolling basis starting September 8, 2022. Additionally, the Solar District Cup Class of 2022-2023 will allow for one-semester or two-quarter participation in the winter/spring.

Student teams will have two options for their district use cases: 

  1. Assignment to a district use case defined by competition organizers, as has been done in all previous iterations of the Solar District Cup, or
  2. A bring-your-own-district division in which students can self-select their district use case, utilizing the district’s available data, with missing data synthesis support by competition organizers. All student teams choosing to bring their own district will compete in a division against other teams bringing their own districts. 

PREVIOUS PROGRAMS

The Solar District Cup launched in 2019. Learn more about the past classes of competitors, including winners and district use cases: 

LEARN MORE

To learn more about the program and the current competition: 

The Solar District Cup is directed and administered by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and is funded by the DOE Solar Energy Technologies Office. Learn more.

Guidelines

Challenge Guidelines

GUIDELINES

The rules document provides a framework for student effort, student team submittal requirements, and judging evaluation. The Class of 2022-2023 Rules have been released and can be accessed under Resources in HeroX.

GOAL

The goal for each team is to design a solar-plus-storage system for a campus or district that maximizes energy offset and financial savings over the contracted or useful life of the system. Competition teams assess electric distribution grid interactions and assume the role of renewable energy systems developers to produce a power purchase agreement (PPA), lease, and/or cash purchase proposal for their division’s district.

The Solar District Cup has multiple divisions. Each division has a set of six teams competing against each other. Each team is tasked to design a solution for a use case of an existing mixed-use district or campus interested in increased distributed energy development. For most divisions, the competition organizers provide each team with the details of their division’s district use case. New for the class of 2022-2023, there is a division in which student teams identify their own defined district use case of electricity load and site data. A district use case is a defined area served by one or more electrical distribution feeders with a collection of spaces potentially available for PV installation, including but not limited to: building rooftops, facades, open land, parking, agricultural dual use, bodies of water, and other facilities.

 

WHAT TEAMS DO AND WIN

Teams submit two deliverables: a Progress Deliverable Package and a Final Deliverable Package.

A team competes against other teams in their division at a final competition event. Competition organizers assign teams to divisions upon registration. Each team designs its own solution for the assigned division’s district use case. The strongest team concepts are those that maximize the district’s energy offset and financial savings over the system’s contracted or useful lifetime while integrating aesthetic, infrastructure, and community considerations. A team wins based on its average score as determined by a panel of three to five judges who evaluate the competition entries through review of deliverable packages and presentations. The first-place winners of each division compete against each other to determine a Project Pitch winner. 

As competitors, students:

  • Gain experience with innovative renewable energy design
  • Develop real-world solutions that shape the future of solar energy
  • Engage with industry professionals to forge relationships and connections that aid participating students’ transition to the solar energy workforce upon graduation
  • Compete to earn a trophy and national recognition.

HOW JUDGING WORKS

A qualified panel of three to five judges—comprising subject-matter experts and representatives from the partner district use cases selected by the competition organizers—score finalist submissions according to the extent to which they agree that the content and formatting requirements were met and with the solution aligns with the judging statements listed below:

  • PROJECT PROPOSAL - The proposal presents a clear and concise summary of the project. Both the proposal and the presentation make a compelling case as to why the proposed solution is the best choice for the district given its needs, constraints, and goals.
  • CONCEPTUAL SYSTEM DESIGN - Conceptual system design proposes a creative and innovative solution that demonstrates excellent analysis, system design, optimal battery use strategy, and and understanding of the PV hosting capacity with distribution constraints.
  • FINANCIAL ANALYSIS - Financial analyses communicates a strong grasp of renewable energy project finance. Input assumptions are justifiable, calculations are correct, battery-operation strategy delivers maximum economic benefits, and pricing and rate of return are attractive to the market. The outputs of both the battery analysis and the customer savings analysis are included as tabs to the Excel-based financial model.
  • DEVELOPMENT PLAN - Proposed building, site, construction, and development plans with any rezoning adds significant value in a comprehensive, actionable, and feasible approach for the district and surrounding community members with distributional equity.

COMPETITION DELIVERABLES

Teams participating for a full academic year are expected to submit two deliverables: a Progress Deliverable Package and a Final Deliverable Package. Teams that submit the progress deliverable receive feedback from the organizer staff. Student teams participating for the spring semester (or winter/spring quarters) compete within their own division and submit only the Final Deliverable Package. These packages are summarized in Table 1 and Table 2 of the Rules and are described in greater detail in the appendices. Competition deliverables are submitted via the online HeroX competition platform.

Progress Deliverable Package—Solar PV System

  • A complete submission for the progress deliverable is the design and analysis of interconnected solar PV systems that maximize energy offset and savings over the system’s contracted or useful lifetime for the district use case.

Final Deliverable Package—Solar PV Plus Battery Electric Storage System

  • The Final Deliverable Package includes a complete conceptual design, modeling, and analysis of a proposed interconnected solar PV plus battery electric storage system that maximizes energy offset and savings during the system’s contracted or useful lifetime for the division district, given its use case parameters and conditions.

 

ELIGIBILITY

The Solar District Cup invites participation of teams comprising of at least three students enrolled in accredited U.S.-based collegiate institutions. Students must be enrolled in at least one class and be pursuing a degree for the duration of the competition. Students who graduate in the middle of the competition timeline may continue on the team as a mentor and contributor; they may contribute to the modeling, analysis, and deliverable components; however, they may not present to the judges in the final competition event. Students and faculty advisors are not required to be U.S. citizens at the time of the competition. Members of the judging panels, competition organizer staff, and U.S. Department of Energy and national laboratory employees are ineligible to compete.

Although any level of collegiate student is eligible to compete, the challenge scope is intended for multidisciplinary teams of upper-level undergraduate students. Student participation may be integrated into senior design or capstone project, count as elective or independent study course credit, be added to the curriculum of existing classes, treated as a seminar topic, engaged as part of a student interest club, or be an extracurricular student activity.

Each team is encouraged to have at least one faculty advisor, but this is not required for participation. Teams are also encouraged to connect with mentors inside or outside their school. If a team of students needs assistance in identifying a faculty advisor or mentor, they can contact the competition organizers for help.

By uploading a deliverable package, a team certifies that it is in compliance with the eligibility requirements. If the organizers become aware that a team or individual is not eligible, that team may be disqualified from competition.

Please see the Class of 2022-2023 Rules.

Timeline
Updates10

Challenge Updates

Announcing the Solar District Cup 2022-2023 Starting Lineup

Oct. 11, 2022, 3:11 p.m. PDT by NREL Challenge

We are excited to announce that 57 teams from 52 collegiate institutions are participating in the Solar District Cup Class of 2022-2023! The class of competitors includes students and faculty advisors from new and returning schools across the country.

 “We continue to see schools choosing to come back to the Solar District Cup program,” said Sara Farrar, competition organizer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. “Just over half of our teams this year are from schools who participated in at least one previous year, while many are new to the Solar District Cup. And we expect to see even more schools participate in our new single-semester option this spring.”

Please join us in welcoming the following collegiate institutions as participants in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar District Cup Collegiate Design Competition Class of 2022-2023: 

  • Alfred State College of Technology
  • Alfred University
  • Appalachian State University
  • Arizona State University
  • Boise State University
  • Boston University 
  • Carnegie Mellon University
  • Clark Atlanta University
  • College of the Muscogee Nation
  • Cornell University
  • Drexel University
  • Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
  • Georgia Institute of Technology
  • Hampshire College
  • Harris-Stowe State University
  • Illinois State University
  • Indian Hills Community College
  • Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis
  • Iowa State University of Science and Technology
  • Lehigh University
  • Manhattan College
  • Miami University
  • Michigan State University
  • Monterey Peninsula College
  • North Carolina State University
  • New Mexico State University
  • Northeastern University
  • New York University
  • Penn State Hazleton
  • Saint Louis University
  • San Antonio College
  • Temple University
  • Texas A&M University
  • Texas Tech University
  • The George Washington University
  • The Ohio State University
  • The University of Arizona
  • The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
  • The University of New Hampshire
  • University of Minnesota Duluth
  • University of Minnesota Twin Cities
  • University at Buffalo, The State University of New York
  • University of California, Riverside
  • University of Houston
  • University of Maryland Eastern Shore
  • University of Michigan
  • University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus
  • University of Washington
  • University of Wisconsin-Platteville
  • Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology
  • Washington University in St. Louis
  • West Texas A&M University

Read the full announcement here for more details on the Class of 2022-2023.

Additionally, we are pleased to announce three of the district use cases for the 2022-2023 program. Students will design, model, and propose distributed solar energy systems for one of the following district use cases:

  • Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University
  • Lake Nona Town Center in Orange County, Florida
  • North Carolina State University’s Centennial Campus. 

Special thanks to partnering organizations, including Aurora Solar Inc., Energy Toolbase, and RE+ Events. Their support is critical to student success in the competition and beyond as they continue their education and enter the renewable energy workforce.

We are thrilled to have so many teams competing from a wide variety of schools and disciplines in the Class of 2022-2023. Stay tuned to find out which teams advance as finalists in January!


Hours Left Before Deadline for Full Academic-Year Participation

Oct. 6, 2022, 6:05 a.m. PDT by NREL Challenge

The Solar District Cup registration deadline is today! Collegiate teams interested in participating in the full academic-year-long competition must register by today—Thursday, Oct. 6., at 5 p.m. ET.

Here’s a reminder on how to register your team—you don’t need to have any work done, but you do need to follow these steps:

  1. Click the “Solve this Challenge” button at the top of this page: You will receive a confirmation email about HeroX registration, but you won’t be enrolled yet in the competition.
  2. Click on the “Begin Entry” button at the top of the Solar District Cup HeroX main page once you’ve signed up for the site.
  3. Fill out the “Create Submission” form with the best info you have right now—your answers can be general at this time.
  4. Click “Submit Entry” to complete your registration.
  5. Here’s how you know you’re registered: You will receive a welcome email from the Solar District Cup team signaling that you are officially registered to compete!

If today’s deadline isn’t feasible for your team, keep in mind that there is another way to participate this year:  A new, condensed version of the Solar District Cup starts in January and runs just the spring semester/winter and spring quarter of 2023.

But we urge you register today by 5 p.m. ET for full academic-year participation! Teams that register by today’s deadline will have more time to execute projects, the chance to define their own district use case, and feedback from competition organizers on progress deliverables. 

Please send any questions about registering your team to 

We hope to see your school among the teams participating in the Class of 2022-2023!


Only One Week Left to Register Your Team for Full Academic Year Participation

Sept. 29, 2022, 9:32 a.m. PDT by NREL Challenge

Heads up! Collegiate teams interested in participating in the academic-year-long Solar District Cup competition must register by Thursday, Oct. 6, at 5 p.m. ET. Applying by this date offers the many benefits of the full competition experience, including more time to execute projects, the chance to define your own district use case, and feedback from competition organizers on progress deliverables.

Ready to take on the challenge? You don’t need to have any work done yet—just register your team by Oct. 6 using these steps:

  1. Click the “Solve this Challenge” button at the top of this page: You will receive a confirmation email about HeroX registration, but you are not yet enrolled in the competition.
  2. Click on the “Begin Entry” button at the top of the Solar District Cup HeroX main page after you’ve signed yourself up as a competitor.
  3. Fill out the “Create Submission” form with the best info you have right now—your answers can be general at this time.
  4. Click “Submit Entry” to complete your registration.
  5. Here’s how you know you’re registered: You will receive a welcome email from the Solar District Cup team signaling that you are officially registered to compete!

New to the Solar District Cup this year is a condensed version of the competition, which starts in January. So, if you can’t register your team by Oct. 6, stay tuned for an opportunity to join the spring semester/winter and spring quarter competition!

Not sure if you registered your team? You can send all questions to . And don’t forget to familiarize yourself with the competition rules to get a better understanding of what’s involved in the competition.   

We look forward to seeing your school represented in this year’s participating teams!


Registration for Full Academic Year Participation Closes Oct 6

Sept. 14, 2022, 2:08 p.m. PDT by NREL Challenge

Collegiate teams interested in participating in the academic year-long Solar District Cup competition must register by Thursday, Oct. 6. at 5 p.m. ET. Applying by this date offers teams the full competition experience, including more time to execute their projects, the chance to define their own district use case, and feedback from competition organizers on progress deliverables.

Ready to enter? Just click the “Solve this Challenge” button at the top of this page to get started! Participants are encouraged to begin forming teams and identifying a faculty advisor at this time. It’s also a good idea to start familiarizing yourself with the competition rules to get a better understanding of what’s involved in participating.   

Bonus: Register your team by tomorrow, Sept. 15, and get FREE entrance to the RE+ 2022 conference in Anaheim, CA, taking place Sept. 19–22. Once you’re registered, reach out to for additional information and the free registration code. 

We hope to see you participate in the Solar District Cup this fall!


Join us at the RE+ Conference and Job Fair!

Sept. 1, 2022, 6:23 p.m. PDT by Robin Tuttle

Hello!

 

We are excited to invite you to the upcoming RE+ 2022 conference in Anaheim, CA, taking place Sept. 19–22. RE+ is North America’s largest renewable energy industry event and includes opportunities to learn about the solar and battery energy storage marketplace as well as to network with professionals. This year’s conference will feature Solar District Cup posters from the Class of 2021-2022 winning teams, as well as the RE+ Job Fair on Wednesday, Sept. 21—a dedicated space for job seekers and clean energy companies to connect. 

 

Anyone interested in participating in the Solar District Cup is invited to attend RE+ to meet the competition organizers, network with peers and industry members, and learn more about careers in the renewable energy sector. 

 

Thanks to our partners at RE+ Events, registered Solar District Cup team members can attend RE+ for free! This is your opportunity to make career connections, meet the competition organizers, and learn about products you might specify in your solar designs. 

 

If you are interested in this opportunity, complete the following steps:

  1. Register a Solar District Cup team prior to the conference by going to  https://www.herox.com/SolarDistrictCup, selecting “Solve this Challenge,” and registering a team.
  2. Contact  for additional information and the code for free student registration to attend the conference.

 

We hope to see you there!

The Solar District Cup organizers


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