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! 


Frequently Asked Questions

You can stay informed about the competition from afar without creating an account by signing up for our newsletter

To follow the challenge, leave a comment, or register to compete, you need to register on All you need to provide is your name and email address.

If you plan to compete with a team from your collegiate institution, just click the “Solve This Challenge” button on this page and follow the instructions to complete your registration. 

If you are an enrolled student pursuing a degree or a faculty advisor at an eligible U.S. collegiate institution, YES, but your participation will be associated with your collegiate institution.

If you encounter an issue when attempting to participate or register for the challenge, you may need to contact HeroX or the Competition Administrators.

You may try to connect with HeroX using the online form that appears in the bottom right corner of your browser window—it says “Leave a Message.”

You may also send a message to the Prize Administrator inbox at .

Please allow at least 1 business day for a response. 

The Solar District Cup is funded by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office and administered and executed by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

If you have a question not answered in the FAQ, you may contact a competition administrator directly at .

All information posted to HeroX for the 2020 edition of the competition has been archived at


Yes! All 15-minute presentations provided by the 26 competing teams are available on the Learning Channel of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in this YouTube Playlist.  

The three 1st Place teams were: Dartmouth College, University of Cincinnati, and Florida International University.

We understand that your PV production data is not available in this form as an output from Aurora Solar. Instead, we recommend you use the NREL National Solar Resource Database (NSRDB) and extract the global horizontal solar irradiance for your district use case location and use the kWh/m^2 for that location, as it will represent a "worst case" of impacts on your distribution system - your PV system will always produce less than this amount.  

2021 Event
2021 Partners
2021 Judges