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FIU students take first place in first-ever Solar District Cup competition

FIU students take first place in first-ever Solar District Cup competition

May 15, 2020 at 10:01am

A multi-disciplinary team of FIU students came together to design a solar photovoltaic, the conversion of light into electricity, and storage system to maximize energy savings for 20 years as part of a new competition by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) called Solar District Cup.

Established in 2019, the Solar District Cup challenges student teams to design and model optimized distributed solar energy systems for a campus or urban district. The purpose of the competition is to inspire students to innovate integrated energy solutions for real-world neighborhoods. 

The competition was divided into three districts: JBG Smith Crystal Parks, New Mexico State University (NMSU) and Ball State University (BSU). Twenty students from the College of Engineering & Computing (CEC) and two students from the College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts (CARTA) were assigned the BSU campus, located in Muncie, Indiana.

After an entire year of hard work, the team won first place in the competition’s BSU division, becoming one of the top three winners in the nation out of 61 participating universities. 

“I saw an opportunity for our students to not only put into practice what they’ve learned but to obtain new skills, engage with industry professionals and become prepared to lead the next generation of solar energy,” said Cheng-Xian Lin, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Materials Engineering (MME), who enrolled FIU into the competition. 

With a large project in their hands, the students formed six sub-teams: conceptual design, development plan, financial analysis, grid distribution, architecture building and organization.

The conceptual design team, led by Mayra Molina, a mechanical engineering student, was tasked with reviewing the land and buildings to see where solar panels could be installed. The team identified 11 buildings on the BSU campus whose rooftops allowed for the installation of solar panels, along with parking lots and available land two miles northwest of the campus. 


Students also looked at open communal areas across campus that receive direct sunlight during the day. They included solar tables, where students could charge their phones and electronics through solar energy, in their plan. The students selected top-of-the-line solar panels, following International Fire Code regulations. 

Creating a construction timeline and understanding how to comply with all the standards and codes of construction was the role of the development planning team, led by Raul Garcia, a mechanical engineering student. 

The finance team, led by another mechanical engineering student Juan Marron was in constant communication with the sub-teams to create a financial analysis that worked for investors and the university. The members also looked to obtain the most tax incentives.

The grid distribution team connected solar panels to the electrical grid and evaluated the impact of the panels on the BSU distribution grid. Receiving crucial information from the conceptual design team, such as the number of panels installed per building, allowed the team to input the information into a distribution simulation software. Their second priority was to add batteries to their design, in the event of a power outage. 

“As one of the co-leaders of the grid distribution team, we were tasked with ensuring all lines and equipment could sustain the power and current in the system,” said Samanta Rodriguez, student team captain. “Our team’s key contributions were ensuring our system would remain resilient against interruptions, like passing clouds.”

The team also received the support of Arif Sarwat, associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and director of the Energy, Power and Sustainability Lab, and graduate students. Ph.D. students, Temitayo Olowu and Asadullah Khalid helped by providing insights into the software program used and identifying batteries to support the BSU campus for three hours in the event of a power outage, respectively.

After completing a site analysis of BSU, a campus measuring 1,140 acres, the students found benefits for installing solar panels like an abundance of flat area and control of most of the site. Some constraints included construction on a busy campus, soil conditions and the low utility cost.

“Another challenge we faced was the design of BSU’s architecture building,” said Marron. “The building is sloped, at a 55-degree angle containing a glass curtain wall. We needed to figure out how to install solar panels in a non-traditional-looking building.”

Due to COVID-19, the in-person competition scheduled to take place in Atlanta, Georgia, was canceled. Instead, the judging process took place through a video conference call. The first place division winners were given eight minutes to present their work. 

“FIU’s design approach had the most aggressive impact I’ve seen for BSU’s division,” said Robert “Bob” Koester, a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified architecture professor from BSU.


The students of the FIU Solar District Cup team were Juan Marron, Samanta Rodriguez, Raul Garcia, Mayra Molina, Briana Canet, Jonathan Gonzalez, Corey Henry, Karla Pabellon, Joaquin Sefair, Beichao Hu and Talha Khan from MME; Juan Sanfiel, Ana Acosta, Laura Bombino, Asley Eizmendiz, Eduardo Gomez Toledo, Roberto Hernandez and Jose Pinero from ECE; Tomas Suarez from the Department of Biomedical Engineering; Chen Li from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering (CEE); Beatriz Alchalaby and Mara Stegaru from the Department of Landscape Architecture + Environmental and Urban Design (LAEUD).

The faculty advisors were Lin, Sarwat, Xia Jin, associate professor in CEE; Andres Tremante, senior instructor in MME; Wallied Orabi, associate professor in the Moss Department of Construction Management; and Ebru Ozer, associate professor in LAEUD.

The team’s industry sponsor was the Miami Chapter of the professional association, American Society of Heating, Refrigerating and Air-Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE).