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Students shine in solar energy competition

After getting involved this semester with the campus student organization Solar Education and Outreach (SolarEO), undergraduate chemical engineering student and SolarEO vice president Zahra Amin and her peers decided to participate in the inaugural U.S. Department of Energy's Solar District Cup Collegiate Design Competition to tackle the problem of designing a solar-plus-storage system for a district that maximizes energy offset and financial savings over 20 years.

Zahra became captain of the group's Solo District Cup team, a diverse group of students ranging from chemical engineers to writer, and all majors in between. Senior chemical engineering student Rupal Jindal is also one of the students in the group.

The competition began during fall semester and concludes in April, when the first winner of the Solar District Cup will be chosen.

Zahra's team competed in multiple rounds, becoming one of the 35 teams from 30 different colleges and universities qualifying to participate in the final round. Subsequently, Zahra's team will represent Ohio State at the finalist conference in Atlanta this spring!

US Dept of Energy Solar District Cup CompetitionDepartment of Energy Solar District Cup 

The goal of the Solar District Cup is to design, model, and present the most reliable, resilient, and cost-effective solar plus storage system possible. Multidisciplinary student teams design and model optimized distributed solar energy systems for a campus or urban district. These systems integrate solar, storage, and other technologies across mixed-use districts, or groups of buildings served by a common electrical distribution feeder. The competition engages students in the engineering, urban planning, finance, and related disciplines to reimagine how energy is generated, managed, and used in a district.

The national competition, which is held online until the final competition, involves teams competing in one of multiple divisions, with each division structured around a distinct district use case. A winner is selected for each division, based on the quality of the team's solar energy system design. The strongest designs provide the highest offset of annual energy and greatest financial savings. This is determined by a techno-economic analysis conducted by students and evaluated by judges. 

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

Ohio State's winning simulation of a photovoltaic systemOhio State's winning simulation of a photovoltaic systemOhio State's project: PV simulation

By researching the mechanics of solar energy and examining case studies and NREL research, Zahra's team created a simulation made in Auora Solar and NREL's System Advisor Model. Both simulate PV systems in a large scale model, with variables such as shading, degradation, area, and price. They used their own iterations and real life design to make their simulations as accurate and realistic as possible.

Rays of light

Zahra's passion for solar energy wasn't something she was "born with." Rather, it developed during her internship experience at First Solar, a company that engineers, constructs and operates many of the world’s largest grid-connected photovoltaic (PV) power plants. Working firsthand with solar panels, Zahra developed insight and appreciation for the value that solar and renewable sources of energy can provide, such as:

  • Solar energy is much more dynamic than other energy sources, ranging from residential systems for homeowners to large-scale concentrated solar power systems that can run entire cities. 
  • PV power plants reduce risk while delivering more reliable and resilient solutions.
  • As technologies improve, solar energy is becoming more and more economical. It is currently around $2.80 per direct current watts (Wdc) for residential systems, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).
  • All of these benefits come with no cost to our ecosystem, since solar energy systems do not produce air pollutants or carbon dioxide and solar energy systems on buildings have minimal effects on the environment. 

"Using my chemistry and engineering knowledge to help the environment felt so fulfilling." -Undergraduate sustainability engineering researcher Zahra Amin

Zahra currently does undergraduate research on sustainability with Professor Li-Chiang Lin.

Chemical engineering and solar energy

Due to expanding needs and increasing demand in the renewable energy sector, chemical engineers are in high demand because there is a lot more research to be done. The knowledge chemical engineering students gain related to heat, chemistry, kinetics and other areas is highly applicable to working with renewable technology. For example, chemical engineers apply thermodynamic principles to design the panels and their knowledge of processing methods and adhesive is used to create the panels and hold the parts together.

Zahra AminZahra AminA blossoming career in solar energy

Zahra wants to continue to grow both professionally and academically while continuing to make a lasting impact on the environment. She plans to graduate in the spring of 2021 and continue her work in solar energy by furthering her education, possibly obtaining a doctorate, and working as a chemical engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. "I strive to work at a place where my passion and determination is matched, and I believe NREL can provide that," she said.

Find Out More

Students interested in learning more can contact Zahra Amin.145, Professor Berger or the Solar Education and Outreach club (SolarEO) for more information. SolarEO meetings are held every Wednesday from 6-7 pm in Enarson 212.