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Student Team to Shed New Light on Sustainable Power Use at UCF

UMD, a Solar Decathlon Powerhouse, Competes to Design, Model a Campus Energy System

By Maggie Haslam

Students wearing construction gear work on building

Photo by WP Andros

Maryland team members assemble the reACT house in Denver for the 2017 Solar Decathlon, in which UMD took second place overall, and fielded the top-ranked U.S. entry. Faculty, staff and at least one student who worked on reACT are part of a new Department of Energy-sponsored solar competition in 2021.

For more than a decade, University of Maryland teams have been dominant in global competitions to design and build non-polluting solar-powered houses—and now they’re trying their hand at a whole college campus.

A team led by students, faculty and staff from the A. James Clark School of Engineering will take on 58 collegiate teams from across the nation at the 2021 U.S. Department of Energy’s second annual Solar District Cup, a contest to design and model an innovative, cost-effective renewable energy system to power a real-world campus or urban district. 

Team Maryland will also include graduate and undergraduate students and professional advisers from the School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation; the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources; the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences; the Robert H. Smith School of Business; and other units across campus.  

“Competitions like the Solar District Cup require a lot of different perspectives; we can’t be myopic,” said student team leader Oluwadara “Tim” Owoeye, a senior majoring in materials science and engineering. “We need to consider the site aspects, critical habitats, financing, even cultural references. An interdisciplinary team is really important.” 

Each team is assigned one of three sites by the competition organizers to build out; past participants have canvased rooftops with solar panels, devised integrated thermal storage systems and leveraged offsite solar installations. The strongest designs with the potential for the highest offset of annual energy use and greatest financial savings will advance to the finals, where students will present to judges live. 

The Maryland team’s site—the University of Central Florida (UCF)—has the “Sunshine State” advantage but a complicated terrain, requiring solar photovoltaic placement that preserves both the nearby forest and the beauty and function of the campus. And because the land on which UCF stands was home to the Timucua and Seminole tribes, the team plans to work with tribal representatives to ensure their design pays homage to the site’s heritage.  

“These real-world, complex projects require us to consider not just the engineering, but how this project will impact the community,” said team adviser Bryan Quinn, director of technical operations for the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Institute for Research in Electronics and Applied Physics. “The students have to build this complex system that addresses multiple needs for power and action, but it also should add something beautiful to the site. Maryland has a long tradition in this type of experiential learning, and I think that spirit gives us an advantage.”

Another advantage: UMD’s robust winning streak in such competitions. Maryland has participated in five solar decathlons over the past 15 years, placing second twice and claiming first with its solar house, WaterShed, in 2011. Many of the consulting faculty and staff on the reACT house, which took second place in 2017, are reprising their roles for the District Cup, as is Owoeye; he was a freshman when he joined the reACT team.

“I have learned a lot in four years,” he laughed. “I feel like I’m bringing a lot more to the table this time around.”

The team has one month to put together initial plans and submit the competition’s required progress deliverables; finalists will be announced in December and present virtually in April. 

While the District Cup doesn’t require the construction of a house like the Solar Decathlon, scheming a large-scale, sustainable and beautiful energy system for what equates to multiple city blocks will demand everything the UMD students can bring to bear. 

“It’s a grander challenge,” said Quinn. “It’s beyond technical and design; we have to consider the context, the economics, logistics and planning, and that means bringing in amazing students from all different disciplines to work together. It’s the first step to changing the world.”

Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Marketing and Communications for the University of Maryland community on weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.