Collegiate Competitions Supercharge the Future Clean Energy Workforce
NREL-Managed Events Give Students the Opportunity To Advance Water Power, Wind Energy, and Their Careers
College students from Pennsylvania to Portugal gathered last month to showcase their work in water power and wind energy at the final events for three U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) collegiate competitions: the inaugural Hydropower Collegiate Competition, fourth annual Marine Energy Collegiate Competition, and 10th annual Collegiate Wind Competition.
Ten student-led teams participated in the Hydropower Collegiate Competition final event, and 19 student-led teams participated in the Marine Energy Collegiate Competition final event, both of which were held May 8–10, 2023, in conjunction with the National Hydropower Association’s Waterpower Week 2023 in Washington, D.C. The Endicott College team won awards for first place and the Case Study Contest in the hydropower competition. The University of New Hampshire team won awards for first place and Best Pitch in the marine energy competition.
The following week, May 15–19, 2023, 13 student-led teams gathered on the University of Colorado Boulder campus for the Collegiate Wind Competition final event, where the Kansas State University team claimed first place.
Powering Up the Next Generation
Hydropower, marine energy, and wind energy are key to meeting the nation’s goals of a carbon-free electricity sector by 2035 and a net-zero-emissions economy by 2050. To meet these goals, the water and wind energy industries need qualified workers to fill all kinds of roles, including engineers, manufacturers, financial analysts, and public relations specialists.
The Hydropower Collegiate Competition, Marine Energy Collegiate Competition, and Collegiate Wind Competition help the nation meet those goals by providing college students with real-world hydropower, marine energy, and wind energy experience. This experience prepares participants for jobs in the water and wind power industries as well as the wider renewable energy sector.
The three competitions recently joined the American-Made program, which offers a wide variety of prizes and competitions supported by a nationwide network of more than 400 industry organizations. The program aims to fast-track new ideas and accelerate the clean energy revolution through training, team building, and mentoring, connecting innovators and entrepreneurs to America’s national laboratories and the private sector.
Participating teams of undergraduate students (in the case of the Collegiate Wind Competition) and undergraduate and graduate students (in the case of the Hydropower and Marine Energy Collegiate Competitions) design, build, and test prototype devices; create business and project development plans; and conduct outreach with their communities and industries. Through their participation, students gain experience and professional connections that will help them land jobs in water, wind, and renewable power.
“When students participate in these competitions, they build skills, share knowledge, and develop professional relationships that will help them launch their renewable energy careers,” said Heidi Tinnesand, a National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) wind energy researcher who helps organize the Collegiate Wind Competition and Hydropower Collegiate Competition. “Alumni have gone on to work for many prominent renewable energy companies, and they say their competition experience helped them land the job.”
In addition, participating colleges and universities can integrate these competitions into their curricula as senior capstone projects and other classes.
“Bringing these competitions into the college classroom gives students the chance to gain valuable on-the-job experience while earning credit toward graduation,” said Arielle Cardinal, the Marine Energy Collegiate Competition operations manager and coordinator of the NREL Water Power program. “This helps schools create programs of study that are relevant to the challenges graduates will face in their careers, ultimately fostering a more prepared, qualified workforce.”
As the three competitions came to a close, NREL caught up with two competition alumni to learn about their post-competition professional paths and how they are applying lessons learned from their respective competitions to careers in renewable energy.
Marine Energy Collegiate Competition 2022
Since serving as the hydrodynamics and moorings subteam leader for the 2022 Oregon State University Marine Energy Collegiate Competition team, which took second place that year, Nicholas May-Varas has juggled an impressive range of renewable energy roles, including internships at NREL, Ocean Motion Technologies, and solar company Active Surfaces. Now a graduate student studying mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, May-Varas is also completing a fellowship at Prime Movers Lab, where he conducts market research related to the ocean sector.
“The Marine Energy Collegiate Competition gave me the opportunity to develop skills that I still use,” May-Varas said. “For example, I created and ran numerical simulations based on a wave energy converter my team designed. Knowing how to do this and what to make of the results transferred to my internship at Ocean Motion Technologies and my current graduate studies. The competition also improved my writing skills by requiring me and my teammates to explain our project in an accessible way. I continue to do this in my market research work when I summarize and analyze my findings,” he said, adding that it “helped me develop foundational skills for my career, whatever the role.”
Collegiate Wind Competition 2023
The week before the Collegiate Wind Competition 2023 final event, Regan Barton walked across the University of Colorado Boulder commencement stage to accept her Bachelor of Science degree in environmental engineering. A week later, at the competition awards ceremony, Barton and the rest of the University of Colorado Boulder Wind Team picked up awards for third place overall and first in the Bonus Siting Challenge. Now, Barton, who served as the financial lead for her team, is set to start a full-time job as a site design engineer at Westwood Professional Services (Westwood), a renewable energy consulting firm where she has interned since 2022.
“I started at Westwood in summer 2022 as a civil engineering intern, and I learned a lot from that experience,” Barton said. The Collegiate Wind Competition “showed me the big picture when it comes to wind energy project development, like how to get the turbine on site, what environmental and financial constraints we’re working with, and what everyone on the project does to keep the project moving forward.” Because of that experience, she said, “I’m starting my career with a much deeper appreciation of what everyone at my company does, how I can contribute, and how I can advance in this field.”
DOE is still accepting applications for the 2024 Collegiate Wind Competition. Interested teams should apply by June 15, 2023.
The Hydropower Collegiate Competition and Marine Energy Collegiate Competition are administered by NREL on behalf of DOE’s Water Power Technologies Office. The Hydropower Collegiate Competition is also administered by the Hydropower Foundation. The Collegiate Wind Competition is managed by NREL on behalf of DOE's Wind Energy Technologies Office.
Get competition news delivered right to your inbox by joining the Collegiate Wind Competition mailing list and subscribing to The Current, NREL’s water power newsletter, which sends updates on the Hydropower Collegiate Competition and Marine Energy Collegiate Competition. To find more opportunities for students to gain renewable energy experience while still in school, visit NREL’s Competitions, Challenges, and Industry Prizes page.