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Duke Fuqua Students Win $22k Prize in US Department of Energy Competition

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Duke Fuqua’s student team, OptiGen, took home a $22,000 award from the EnergyTech University Prize (EnergyTech UP) 2024’s National Pitch Event in April. 

“The EnergyTech University Prize provides a unique opportunity for students to think creatively and deeply about how to translate cutting-edge energy technologies into successful businesses,” says Professor David Brown of Duke Fuqua. “We must have this kind of entrepreneurship in spades to solve the climate crisis: climate tech innovations can only make their needed impact if supported by sound business models.”

Announced by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Office of Technology Transitions (OTT) at Zpryme’s Energy Thought Summit in Austin, Texas, three national winners and 13 bonus prizes were selected out of 225 competitor teams from 117 schools nationwide. The teams had presented business plans for bringing a DOE National Laboratory-developed or other high-potential energy technology to market.

Duke Fuqua’s team, OptiGen, comprises students Sumit Dalsania, Ross Fly, Marla Harvey and Brian Wong. The Fuqua team’s winning entry was their State-of-the-art Power Generation Dispatch, an innovative approach to electric power distribution. “What impressed me so much about the OptiGen team was their dedication to this pursuit, adding many late nights and weekends of effort to their already jam-packed schedules,” notes Professor Brown.

The team applied findings from the paper “Unit Commitment without Commitment: A Dynamic Framework for Managing an Integrated Energy System Under Uncertainty” by Professor Brown and Professor James Smith of Dartmouth Tuck, who advised the students during the competition. A product of their work on the GRACE project, the paper outlined an algorithmic framework to make an electric grid funneling power from multiple sources, including increasing renewable energy, more efficient and reliable. 

Utility companies supply uninterrupted power to homes and businesses, but to provide that energy, they tap a variety of power sources: fossil fuels, nuclear, and increasingly, renewable sources like solar and wind power. However, renewable energy increases uncertainty in the power delivery system, due to factors like weather impacting solar and wind power and the operational challenges of ramping up production of fossil-fueled generators and nuclear plants to compensate. Mixing multiple sources of energy is complex and requires coordination of potentially “thousands of assets,” according to Professor Brown

Their approach is designed to manage variable conditions for each energy source while also planning further ahead based on the implications of short-term power decisions the utility has to make every hour. “The key is to be flexible. We’re not committing to anything upfront but allowing our valuations to guide production as conditions change,” explains Professor Brown. The result was a more efficient power system that withstood both unexpected high production of energy from individual sources as well as high-demand scenarios. 

The top three national awards from EnergyTech UP went to Team Rise Up from the University of Chicago (first place); Team ProPika from the University of Arkansas (second place); and Team Ion Clean PV from Hawai’i Pacific University (third place). See more about the event here.

Christina Griffith
Christina Griffith is a writer and editor based in Philadelphia. She specializes in covering education, science, and history, and has experience in research and interviews, magazine content, and web content writing.