NREL Challenge


Solar District Cup 2021

Challenging multidisciplinary student teams to design and model optimized distributed energy systems for a campus or urban district.

This challenge is closed

Connections, Pride & Experience!

This challenge is closed


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 optimized distributed energy systems for a campus or urban district. These systems integrate solar, storage, and other distributed energy capabilities across mixed-use districts, or groups of buildings served by a common electrical distribution feeder. The competition engages students across the engineering, urban planning, and finance disciplines to reimagine how energy is generated, managed, and used in a district.

Teams compete in one of multiple divisions, each structured around a distinct district use case. A winner is selected for each division, based on the quality of their solar energy system design. The strongest designs provide the highest offset of annual energy and greatest financial savings. This will be determined by a techno-economic analysis conducted by students and evaluated by judges. The goal is to design, model, and present the most reliable, resilient, and cost-effective system possible.

Students will present their solutions to judges at a virtual live competition event, from which the winners will be selected and announced.        



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

  • Build 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 national recognition upon winning a Solar District Cup and/or being selected as an industry choice winner.

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.


2020 AND 2021 PROGRAMS

The Solar District Cup Class of 2020 was the inaugural cohort of the competition. Students competed from September 2019 through April 2020. Further details about the 2020 competition, including a list of winners, can be found here

The Class of 2021 program was launched on April 30, 2020, and will span the 2020-2021 academic year. Choose "follow" at the top of this page to be sure that you hear about the program and select "submit your solution" if you're planning to be part of a collegiate team. 



To learn more about the program and the current competition: 

To learn more about the Class of 2020: 

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.


Challenge Guidelines


The rules document will provide a framework for student activities, student team submittal requirements, and judging evaluation. A review of the 2021 Rules will provide a good overview of the type of work that will be required. 



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 analyze 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 at least six teams competing against each other. Each division is assigned a use case of an existing mixed-use urban district or campus in need of increased distributed energy development. The competition organizers provide each team with the details of their division’s district use case. 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, open land, parking,and other infrastructure.



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

A team competes against other teams in a division, and each division has a single district use case. 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 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.


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 the 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 creative and innovative solution that demonstrates excellent analysis and system design and optimal battery use strategy.
  • DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM IMPACT ANALYSIS - Power flow modeling approach demonstrates sophisticated strategy to integrate a reliable solution into the distribution system while operating within voltage and loading restrictions.
  • FINANCIAL ANALYSIS - Financial analysis 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.
  • 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.


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

Progress Deliverable Package—Solar PV System

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

Final Deliverable Package—Solar PV Plus Battery Electric Storage System

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



The Solar District Cup invites participation of teams composed 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 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 DOE 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 work, count as elective or independent study course credit, be added to the curriculum of existing classes, or be considered an extracurricular student activity.

Each team is encouraged to have at least one faculty advisor, but this is not required for participation. 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.

All required rules are provided in the Solar District Cup 2021 Rules. 


Challenge Updates

The Solar District Cup Class of 2021 HeroX Page has Moved

May 13, 2021, 10:45 a.m. PDT by Jackie Petre

With the completion of the Solar District Cup Class of 2021, this HeroX channel has been moved to as an archived page. All future updates to the program will be made on the main Solar District Cup HeroX page. This is where you will find information about the current program and competitors. 

The Solar District Cup 2021 HeroX site will remain accessible as a resource and archive of the Class of 2021 program. If you would like to receive updates about future challenges, you can follow the current competition on HeroX or subscribe to the newsletter

Whether you participated in the Class of 2021 or enjoyed following the program, we invite you to join the Class of 2022 competition and remain an active part of the Solar District Cup community! 

Congratulations, Class of 2021!

April 26, 2021, 1:03 p.m. PDT by Jackie Petre

Congratulations to the Solar District Cup Class of 2021 on the success of the 2021 Competition Event. With 29 competing teams from 28 collegiate institutions, there were many great projects presented. After the announcement of the top three teams in each division, the first-place winners—University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus, University of Colorado Boulder, and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University—faced off in the Pitch Championship for the title of Project Pitch winner.  

After witnessing three terrific project pitches, a public audience of over 300 attendees voted to select their favorite team. Competition was fierce--all three teams received at least 30% of the vote, and in the end, University of Colorado Boulder was voted as the Project Pitch winner.  

Congratulations, again, to the three first-place teams on fantastic proposals! And thank you to all the students who competed in the Solar District Cup Class of 2021. You impressed the judges, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) leadership, the competition partners, and the organizers with your hard work and thoughtful pitches.  

Today, DOE also announced the upcoming launch of the Class of 2022 program, which will span the 2021-2022 academic year. The competition organizers hope you consider participating again or recommending the program to students who would benefit from this experience. Make sure you’re following Solar District Cup on HeroX and subscribe to the competition newsletter the for updates and information on how you can register!  

Thank you and congratulations to everyone who made the Solar District Cup Class of 2021 a success! 

Which Winning Team Will Become the Solar District Cup Class of 2021 Project Pitch Champion? Help Us Decide!

April 26, 2021, 8:31 a.m. PDT by Jackie Petre

Today, the U.S. Department of Energy announced winners in each of the competition’s three divisions. Join us later today to help select the Project Pitch winner from among the first-place teams!

The first-, second-, and third-place teams in each division are as follows:

City of Denver/Auraria Center for Higher Education District Use Case Division

  • 1st Place: University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez Campus
  • 2nd Place: Georgia Institute of Technology
  • 3rd Place: The Ohio State University

University of Central Florida District Use Case Division

  • 1st Place: University of Colorado Boulder
  • 2nd Place: University of California, Irvine
  • 3rd Place: The University of Toledo

University of Nebraska – Lincoln District Use Case Division

  • 1st Place: Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
  • 2nd Place: Boise State University
  • 3rd Place: Illinois State University

Congratulations to all the teams who presented to judges for the Class of 2021.

At 2 p.m. ET today, Monday, April 26, the three first-place teams in each division will face off and present 8-minute project pitches to a public audience, who will vote on their favorite presentation to determine the Project Pitch Champion. 

Register now and join the Solar District Cup Pitch Championship today at 2 p.m. ET!

You’re Invited: The Solar District Cup Class of 2021 Competition Event

April 21, 2021, 10:04 a.m. PDT by Jackie Petre

Over the past academic year, students competing in the Solar District Cup Class of 2021 have been diligently working on their solar-plus-storage designs. Now, they’re getting ready to pitch their final projects to their division peers and a panel of industry judges at the 2021 Competition Event. 

On April 25-26, 2021, 29 student teams will participate in a two-day, three-part event where they’ll present their projects to a panel of industry judges, find out the winners in each division, and compete for the title of Project Pitch Champion. The schedule of events includes: 

  • Sunday, April 25
    • 12 – 6 p.m. EDT - Solar District Cup Student Division Presentations
  • Monday, April 26
    • 11 – 11:30 a.m. EDT - Solar District Cup Division Winner Announcement
    • 2 – 3 p.m. EDT - Solar District Cup Pitch Championship

On Monday, April 26, U.S. Department of Energy leadership will join the Division Winner Announcement to award the first-, second-, and third-place winners in each division. Then, the top three teams will present an 8-minute project pitch to their peers and a public audience, who will vote for their favorite team to become the Project Pitch Champion. We need you to help us decide the Project Pitch Champion. Join us to vote on the winner!

Don’t miss this chance to see the best and brightest students shaping the future of solar in this live virtual event. Learn more about the Class of 2021 Competition Event and join the Pitch Championship to vote for one of the three teams vying to become the Project Pitch Champion!

Thank You to the Solar District Cup Partners

Feb. 19, 2021, 8:41 a.m. PST by Jackie Petre

The Solar District Cup organizers would like to recognize and thank our 2021 partners for their support and collaboration. Students competing in the Solar District Cup continue to benefit from the resources provided by these partners. Because of their generous contributions, students are able to further learn about solar energy and make industry connections. Our partners include:

  • Aurora Solar is providing participating student teams free accounts and access to its solar system design and simulation software, offering customized training, and staffing “Office Hours” sessions throughout the competition.
  • HeatSpring LLC is providing a learning platform and solar industry training content for all participating students as well as staffing “Office Hours” with solar business experts Keith Cronin and Chris Lord.
  • Solar Power Events is providing promotion for the Solar District Cup and discounted student participation at several industry conferences.

In addition to these programmatic partners, we also have several district use case partners, which change every year. The Solar District Cup Class of 2021 has three divisions to which teams have been assigned. Each division proposes solutions for a use case of a real-world mixed-use urban district or campus interested in pursuing distributed energy solutions. 

The Solar District Cup would not be able to provide access to these district and campus use cases without the collaboration of our 2021 partners providing valuable data to the student teams:

Learn more about our Class of 2021 partners here. Thank you to all our partners for helping make the Solar District Cup a success! 

2021 Event
2021 Partners
2021 Judges

2021 Judges


The U.S. Department of Energy Solar District Cup Collegiate Design Competition is proud to have the enthusiastic support of industry professionals as judges for the 2021 competition event.

City of Denver / Auraria Higher Education Center District Use Case Judges

Bakary Coulibaly
Development Engineer, SolAmerica Energy

Bakary Coulibaly earned a Bachelor of Science in electrical engineering from the University of the District of Columbia. He specializes in early-stage project development and project engineering. Currently, he oversees the engineering aspects of project development for SolAmerica Energy and is working on a 15-megawatt portfolio in Illinois as part of the Adjustable Block Program from the Illinois Power Agency.

Chris Herr
Sustainability Officer, Auraria Higher Education Center

Chris Herr holds a master's degree in public administration from the University of Colorado Denver with a focus on nonprofit management and environmental policy. He has a background in nonprofit consultant work and a wide variety of sustainability-related projects. In his current role as the sustainability officer for the 42,000 constituents on the Auraria campus in downtown Denver, which hosts three higher education institutions and features the largest singular rooftop array in the downtown area, he has been pursuing resource-saving opportunities in water conservation, alternative transportation, and other sustainability projects.

Akshay Kumar Jain
Doctoral Student, Virginia Tech

Akshay Kumar Jain holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and is working toward his doctorate, also from Virginia Tech. He previously worked as a research engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory’s Power Systems Engineering Center for three years, where he worked extensively on the development of tools and algorithms to enable safe and reliable integration of distributed energy resources in power distribution systems. He is also the recipient of “R&D 100” and Federal Laboratory Consortium’s “Notable Technology Development” awards.

Rachel McLaughlin
Vice President of Sales and Marketing, ForeFront Power 

Rachel McLaughlin earned a Bachelor of Arts in public policy from Duke University and is a Fulbright Fellow. She has over a decade of experience in energy sector sales to Fortune 1,000 customers across the U.S. and 500 MW of distributed generation projects. She currently leads policy, market strategy, land and project acquisition, marketing, and customer sales for solar and storage developer ForeFront Power. 


University of Central Florida District Use Case Judges

Kristen Fornes
Director of Business Development, ENGIE

Kristen Fornes received a Bachelor of Science in finance from DePaul University and a Master of Business Administration in sustainable management from Kellstadt Graduate School of Business at DePaul University. She started her career selling retail power contracts to small business customers for American Electric Power Retail Energy in Chicago. She is now responsible for developing distributed solar and storage projects for Fortune 1,000 customers, cities, and universities for ENGIE, a multinational electric utility company.

Qifeng Li
Tenure-Track Assistant Professor, University of Central Florida (UCF)

Qifeng Li received his doctorate in electrical engineering from Arizona State University in 2016 and completed postdoctoral training at Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 2016 to 2018. Previously, he was the UCF principal investigator of a National Science Foundation-funded project on control of networked microgrids and a U.S. Department of Energy-funded project on post-disaster restoration of transmission, distribution, and communication systems. He is currently a tenure-track assistant professor at UCF and is interested in grid-integration of renewable energy research.

Alex Parlato
Sr. Manager of Energy Services, University of Central Florida

Alex Parlato received his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Central Florida. He has a background in energy management, building automation controls implementation, service, system administration, data management, and analytics. Currently, he is responsible for the administration and development of campus enterprise energy management, building automation, and geographic information system programs and systems for UCF.

Siddharth Temburni
Director of Engineering, Summit Energy Group

Siddharth Temburni earned a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from Savitribai Phule Pune University in India, and a Master of Science in solar energy engineering from the University of Massachusetts Lowell. He is a North American Board of Certified Energy Practitioners-certified photovoltaic (PV) installation professional, a general contractor for residential and commercial buildings, and holds a renewable energy professional license for the state of Rhode Island. As a director of engineering at Summit Energy Group, he manages and trains the design and engineering team, works with national strategic partners on the operations and sales side, works directly with higher management on portfolio financial analysis and feasibility, and has designed and engineered a 30 MW utility-scale ground-mount PV installation for a Texas utility.


University of Nebraska – Lincoln District Use Case Judges

Dr. Olga Lavrova
Associate Professor, New Mexico State University 

Olga Lavrova earned her Bachelor of Science in physics and Master of Science in electrical engineering from the Saint Petersburg Electrotechnical University in Russia, and her doctorate degree from the University of California Santa Barbara. Her previous experience includes serving as principal member of technical staff at Sandia National Laboratory in the Photovoltaics and Distributed Systems Integration Department and as a faculty advisor to both Solar District Cup and Solar Decathlon collegiate teams. Her current work and areas of interest include photovoltaics and semiconductor devices for power electronics, smart grids, renewable energy, and electric energy storage systems.

Dr. Linda Pickett
Energy Engineer, University of Nebraska – Lincoln (UNL)

Linda Pickett earned a Bachelor of Science in mechanical engineering from Kansas State University, a Master of Science in atmospheric science from The University of Alabama in Huntsville, and a doctorate in geology from the University of Kansas. Her previous experience includes contributions to the life support system design for the space station, conducting research related to locating sources of geothermal energy, and teaching earth science classes. She currently works on energy conservation projects and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning control optimization, and serves on the Chancellors Environment, Sustainability and Resilience Commission at UNL.

Dana Clare Redden
Founder and CEO, Solar Stewards 

Dana Clare Redden holds a Bachelor of Science from Drexel University, as well as an Executive Master of Business Administration from IE Business School at Brown University. In 2016, she founded Solar Stewards, a social enterprise directly connecting corporate social responsibility initiatives with impact capital to develop distributed generation solar in marginalized and front-line communities. In 2021, Solar Stewards was accepted into the American Council on Renewable Energy’s Accelerate program, while Redden joined the list of Grist’s 50 Fixers.

Benjamin Schneider
Project Finance Manager, Adapture Renewables 

Benjamin Schneider earned a Bachelor of Arts in economics from Williams College. Over the past six years, he has led negotiations with equity and debt investors for structured finance transactions supporting deployment of all scales of solar generation facilities, including residential, commercial and industrial, and utility. In his current role at Adapture, he has closed four such transactions, securing funding for 18 facilities totaling more than 100 MW of installed capacity.