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Nicole CourseyBy Nicole Coursey

Nicole Coursey is a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill majoring in Environmental Studies on the Sustainability track and minoring in Data Science and Pre-Business. She chose to participate in UNC’s first Clean Energy Case Competition due to her interest in clean energy and desire to gain more real-world skills as they relate to research and project development.

This semester, spring 2024, the UNC Undergraduate Student Government Environmental Affairs (SGEA) board, a branch of the UNC’s student government concerned with developing and implementing environmental policy and event programming relating to energy and the environment, collaborated with Strata Clean Energy to plan UNC’s first Clean Energy Case Competition. Strata is a solar energy and battery storage developer, owner, and operator based out of Durham, NC. Open to all UNC students regardless of major, the competition gave participants the opportunity to delve into changing policy, government relations, economics, supply chains, and climate goals as they relate to clean energy development in the U.S.

Defining the Case Problem and Potential Solutions

For the competition, students were asked to form teams in order to create a Net-Zero plan for the fictional community of Pleasant Acres- a rural town historically dependent on coal mining. Citizens in Pleasant Acres expressed a growing desire to make their energy mix cleaner and more affordable. To aid in this change, teams acted as a small electric cooperative, RurCo, and created an energy procurement plan for the community, with an implementation timeline of just two years. In doing so, the town would break away from their large wholesale electricity supplier, BigPow, thus shifting from a fossil fuel economy to one built on renewables.

“Students like myself developed valuable experience working in teams, researching environmental topics, and proactive time management- skills applicable to all careers, not just those involving clean energy.”

In order to create their initial project proposals, groups considered multiple different facets of clean energy development: deciding specific technologies, the scale and location of installations (including the environmental and social consequences of such decisions), tax credit benefits, financial logistics, and project timelines. Teams worked together to help answer these questions, conduct calculations, and complete the final write up which was then submitted to a panel of judges from the SGEA and Strata who would determine the groups who would move on to round two. In doing so, students like myself developed valuable experience working in teams, researching environmental topics, and proactive time management- skills applicable to all careers, not just those involving clean energy.

Group photo at the Clean Energy Case Competition.Ultimately, eight groups were selected to move on to the final presentation, in which teams would present their unique project proposals to a panel of Strata employees for a chance at a $1,000 dollar prize. Presentations were limited to 10 minutes and students were asked to give a concise overview of their clean energy proposals, including the community benefits and engagement, project timeline, and budget considerations. Judges evaluated each team based on a set of criteria which included creativity in proposed solution, feasibility in implementation, thoughtfulness & thoroughness, and quality of presentation (considering things like visuals, presentation skills, and methodology of assessment).

Preparing for the Competition and the Value of Teamwork

To prepare for the presentation, my team and I spent numerous hours making a thoughtful, concise, and easy to interpret slide deck. We decided who would cover each slide, with my focus mainly on timeline and community engagement. Notably, we began our project timeline with decommissioning the coal plant in 2025 and creating workforce retraining programs. Ultimately, what made this possible was building up a grid of renewables which included different technologies like solar, wind, and battery storage, to help us meet our Net Zero goals. For the community engagement aspect, our project proposal involved key stakeholders like farmers, especially as we planned to deploy agrovoltaics (the dual use of land for solar power and agricultural land), former fossil fuel workers, and the general public. With the combination of our monthly town hall meetings and workforce retraining and passport programs, we intended to address any possible concerns from the community.

Each team presented wholly unique proposals with a diverse range of energy mixes. Some teams included modular nuclear, while others included fairly novel technologies like underground gravitational energy storage and vehicle-to-grid. Unsurprisingly, nearly all teams included some iteration of solar and wind to fill Pleasant Acre’s energy demands.

Nicole Coursey and her team.In the end, my team and I were awarded with runner up, along with one other team. By competing, students like myself were able to develop new knowledge about clean energy deployment and project development, as well as refine existing knowledge. I’m glad UNC Student Governmental Environmental Affairs and Strata created this opportunity for interested and passionate students like myself, and I hope to participate in competitions like this one in the future!

The UNC Clean Energy Case Competition was a part of the UNC Cleantech Summit week. For more information about this program visit:

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