Penn State students get second win(d) in Collegiate Wind Competition 2016

Chris Spallino
July 08, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — You never know which way the wind might blow. But one thing is for certain — the Penn State Wind Energy Club blew away the competition at the U.S. Department of Energy Collegiate Wind Competition 2016, held at the end of May in New Orleans.

Competing against 11 teams from universities across the nation and Puerto Rico, the Penn State team, comprised of 21 students from various majors, earned a big “W” in the Big Easy as the competition’s overall winner, claiming its second consecutive title. The team also grabbed first place in the Business Plan and Turbine Testing contests.

“I’m so proud of our students for winning the overall competition,” said Susan Stewart, lead strategic adviser of the team and senior research associate and assistant professor of aerospace engineering. “They worked extremely hard, and the contests they won were the ones they were gunning for.”

Kyle Dolf, business team leader and a mechanical engineering junior, said having the title from the last competition didn’t mean anything to the team since it was a different group.

“We each had our own reasons for participating, but we all wanted to win,” said Dolf. “Everyone took ownership of their individual roles and put in 10 to 25 hours per week since summer. We made it work in a very positive, structured way that paid off.”

The Collegiate Wind Competition challenges interdisciplinary undergraduate teams from a variety of degree programs to offer a unique solution to a complex wind energy project. Each team is required to design a wind-driven power system — a wind turbine — to supply electricity to non-grid connected devices for off-grid applications.

The competition, however, goes beyond the technical aspects of building and testing a turbine; each team must also develop and deliver a business plan based on market research and establish a deployment strategy.

That was a huge eye-opener for the team.

Run like the wind

“Back in August, adviser Dr. Frank Archibald said to us, ‘You will not understand what you are getting yourself into,’” said Dolf. “That was completely true. We didn’t understand the complexities of creating a turbine at a technical level, creating a startup company, conducting market research and handling the financial aspects — all at the same time.”

According to Stewart, there was a bit of discomfort early on with the team in owning the challenge, but the advisers empowered the students to make their own decisions and they ran with it, ensuring they went into the competition confidently.

Leadership was also a major factor in the team’s success. In 2015, Mitch Proulx, technical/test turbine team leader and a mechanical engineering junior, competed in a similar event, the Department of Energy Collegiate Wind Competition 2015 Engineering Contest.

“Having the competition experience from last year really helped me in my leadership role,” said Proulx. “Knowing what the judges look for and what other teams struggle with was definitely an advantage.”

Deciding on a business concept and the turbine design proved to be a challenge, though.

“To only have wind as your power source makes it more complicated to come up with a viable business,” said Stewart. “It’s even tougher when you ask engineering students to wrap their heads around market research and ask business students to understand the technical components.”

The students, however, showed their mettle. After brainstorming and investigating more than 20 concepts, the students knew what direction they wanted to go in. They decided on an innovative business model that would occupy a unique market space and could eventually develop into an industry-leading brand: wind-powered cellphone recharging services for large-scale, multi-day music festivals.

Each student had to possess a solid understanding of all facets of the business model to be able to talk confidently about the “big picture.” This paid off the most during the public and private pitches the team was required to give.

No twisting in the wind

“I was a little nervous because I had never given a presentation of that magnitude at a competition before,” said Dolf, who conducted the 10-minute public presentation in front of a crowd of approximately 75 people, including industry members and government agencies. “Because of our team effort, though, we were fully prepared and executed well.”

Kyle Dolf, mechanical engineering junior, delivers the Penn State team's public pitch with Lucas Maass, energy business and finance senior looking on.

Kyle Dolf, mechanical engineering junior, delivers the Penn State team's public pitch with Lucas Maass, energy business and finance senior, looking on.

IMAGE: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab

Proulx, who was part of the pitch team, along with Dolf; Jhi Yong Loke, a mechanical engineering senior; and Paul Caldwell, an industrial engineering junior, also had a few butterflies.

“I was nervous during the private presentation, with only 15 minutes to talk about everything from a technical and business standpoint,” said Proulx. “But the judges loved what we had to say.” 

Throwing caution to the wind

Despite their nerves, the students felt confident during the turbine testing contest. They had a secret weapon — something that sounds like it came straight out of "Back to the Future" — an axial flux permanent magnet coreless generator.

Competitors needed to achieve an extremely low cut-in speed, that at which power is produced, of 2.5 meters per second (m/s), at which point scoring began. Using a typical motor, the Penn State students would have encountered the two biggest enemies of a wind-powered turbine: friction and insufficient voltage.

“We’ve used one in the past for other competitions, but after experimenting with various motors, none of them matched the competition requirements very well,” said Rick Auhl, co-principal investigator on the project, lead adviser of the engineering team and aerospace engineering senior research associate. “We knew we had to build our own generator to match the turbine’s blade design and expected performance.”

Penn State Wind Energy Club members discuss their turbine design with U.S. Department of Energy Collegiate Wind Competition

Pat Nicodemus, industrial engineering junior, and Mitch Proulx, mechanical engineering junior, discuss the Penn State team's wind turbine design with Collegiate Wind Competition judges, as Paul Caldwell, industrial engineering junior, and Lucas Maass, energy business and finance senior, look on.

IMAGE: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab

Last summer, a team of students discovered the axial flux generators, which are perfect for wind energy and relatively easy and inexpensive to fabricate. After testing 30 different configurations during the fall, the team had built its own.

“It was a major challenge and risk to create our own, and something no one has ever done before,” said Proulx. “But it turned out to be a huge advantage as we achieved the lowest cut-in speed at 1.5 m/s.”

The team’s adjustable pitch blade design also proved instrumental in its victory. Using XTurb-PSU, a wind turbine design and analysis software tool, the students, with Sven Schmitz, assistant professor of aerospace engineering, were able to change the blade pitch to be more efficient at higher speeds. Without that, the team would not have been able to achieve its low starting speed.

Gone with the win(d)

With their creative thinking, teamwork and determination, the Penn Staters breezed by the competition with an overall score of 821 points out of a possible 1,000 — more than 100 points ahead of the second place team.

When the winds died down, the students realized the entire experience was more than just a competition — it was an incredible learning experience that exposed them to multiple disciplines and enabled them to take the knowledge that they had gained throughout the year and put it to the test.

“There were a lot of failures before we got there, but to create a methodology that allowed us to succeed and carry it out on our own as a team and a business is something we’ve never been taught in class,” said Dolf. “Having all of these crossover disciplines was something that couldn’t even be replicated in a classroom.”

*The Penn State team benefited from several University resources throughout the course of their yearlong preparation for the competition. They received cost share support from the College of Engineering, the Penn State Institutes of Energy and the Environment and the Department of Aerospace Engineering. The support from these areas allowed for 19 team members to attend the event, as well as for the materials and supplies for the construction of the test turbine and a mockup of a half-scale version of the market turbine product. 

Additionally, the team worked with the Penn State Sustainability Institute’s Sustainable Communities Collaborative by engaging two project teams from Karen Winterich’s sustainability marketing course in the Penn State Smeal College of Business. These teams helped the Wind Energy Club in addressing some of the business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketing strategies, highlighting the sustainability attributes of the company business model. The Sustainability Institute also supported the team in 2014, through the Reinvention Fund, which helped provide a foundation for inspiring what has become the Penn State Wind Energy Club, an ongoing “living laboratory” for experiential wind energy educational activities at Penn State. The team also worked with Maria Spencer at the Penn State Small Business Development Center, getting valuable feedback on its company strategy.

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Last Updated September 20, 2019