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Creighton University seniors win national solar energy design contest

May 12, 2022
3 min Read
District Solar Cup Students

Perhaps we should let the colossal U.S. Department of Energy, whose 2022 budget request for $42 billion included $386.6 million for solar energy technologies, make the announcement: 

“The public has spoken, and Creighton University (Omaha, Nebraska) is the winner of the Solar District Cup Class of 2021-2022!” it announced in an April 26 news release.   

The exclamation point emphasizes the significance of the competition and the magnitude of the achievement of four Creighton students and their professor, whose work topped a field of 67 competing universities, colleges and institutes of technology. 

“Our goal was to do at least as well as last year’s team, which came in third, but we certainly blew away our expectations by winning the whole thing,” says Alex Webert, a May sustainability energy science and applied physics graduate from the College of Arts and Sciences. Webert, a Minneapolis native, served as lead system design for the project. 

“We were going against all these schools with engineering programs,” says Max Markuson of Pueblo, Colorado, a May sustainability energy science and physics graduate who served as project manager. “There were engineers on every single team. It was a little daunting, but I had confidence that we would go far.”

We certainly blew away our expectations by winning the whole thing.
— Alex Webert

The Solar District Cup, says Andrew Baruth, PhD, the associate professor of physics at Creighton who oversaw the four students, is closely monitored by the solar industry, which is always searching for the next generation of solar scientists. 

“Our final presentation was given during a Zoom conference attended by about 160 industry professionals,” Baruth said. “The students presented entirely on their own and they were voted the overall winner. They did a very good job. It was exceptionally professional, and job offers are already coming in.” 

According to the Solar Energy Technologies Office, a division of the U.S. Department of Energy, the Solar District Cup challenge aims to reimagine “how energy is generated, managed, and used in a district.” 

The “district” assigned to Creighton, along with nine other universities in their finalist group, was Cheyney University in Cheyney, Pennsylvania, which, having been founded in 1837, is the oldest of America’s historically black universities. The 10 contending schools were each to draw up a plan to introduce solar technology to Cheyney’s campus. The plan had to describe not just the technical feasibility of installing solar but also how such a project might be financed in a manner feasible for Cheyney and attractive to investors. 

Two other groups composed of 10 finalists each were assigned similar projects at Ohio State University and at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. 

Baruth said he realized Webert and Markuson would need help in matters of business and finance so he put word out around campus that Creighton could win this thing, that such an accomplishment would look awfully good on a resumé, and was anyone interested? 

Ashley Nelson of Eden Prairie, Minnesota, a May graduate double-majoring in finance and international business with a minor in sustainability, and Emma Goldsmith of Castle Rock, Colorado, a May graduate majoring in environmental science answered the call. 

“I think it was my excitement about renewable energy and my passion for sustainability that made me want to do something tangible that was a little bit more multidisciplinary,” says Nelson.   

“I’ve always had a passion for the outdoors, and I’m from Colorado, so I am all about renewable energy, which I think is the way toward preserving our environment,” says Goldsmith. 

The students began designing their plan for Cheyney University last September – work that required access to confidential information about the university’s finances, endowment and its power usage. Seven months later, the team submitted a 70-page written summary of their proposal and on Sunday, April 24, they unveiled their proposal in a 15-minute Zoom presentation before four judges, all of whom were solar industry professionals.

I am all about renewable energy, which I think is the way toward preserving our environment.
— Emma Goldsmith

This was the first step, and after being voted the best of the 10 presenting institutions in their group they joined the winners of the other two groups. Three teams now remained of the original 67. 

The pressure rose significantly. 

The following day, Monday, April 25, the three divisional winners were scheduled to give eight-minute Zoom presentations, this time to approximately 160 industry professionals and Department of Energy officials. 

“The students frantically started putting together their final pitch,” Baruth says. “And they won the whole thing. Anecdotally, industry professionals sitting in on that presentation have written or called who have told me the vote wasn't even close.” 

The long, intense and ultimately satisfying journey says much about the value of academic striving, Baruth says. 

“The ability to show Creighton students how much their course experiences can connect to real-world problems, with all of the subtlety, the nuance and the rigor, is what this competition was all about,” he says. “They turned their passion into a product while meeting and interacting with real-world professionals. When it all came together and we knew we had done everything we could do for Cheyney University, well, I simply cannot imagine a greater sense of professional and personal pride.”