UT Austin Students Team Up to Win Energy Challenge

A multidisciplinary team from The University of Texas at Austin, including a Cockrell School of Engineering Ph.D. student, recently won first place and a $10,000 award in the Power Across Texas Energy Innovation Challenge. As part of the competition, teams developed proposals to bring power to colonias, unincorporated neighborhoods with inadequate infrastructure and substandard housing across Texas’ border with Mexico.

The winning team proposed a sun-to-grid model in which solar installations would temporarily provide electricity until colonia households could connect to the more reliable energy grid. The team was made up of Carlos Olmedo, a Ph.D. student at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, Charles Upshaw, a Ph.D. student at the Cockrell School of Engineering, and Patricia Varraveto, a second-year MBA student at the McCombs School of Business. Fred Beach, a research associate and lecturer with the Jackson School of Geoscience’s Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy and member of the Cockrell School’s Webber Energy Group, acted as the team’s adviser. Beach also holds a Ph.D. from the LBJ School.

For the Energy Innovation Challenge, Upshaw tackled the tiered electricity service and solar photovoltaic technological aspects, while Olmedo developed colonia baseline characteristics and a mixed-methods and spatial approach to identify households without electricity since there is no database on the extent of need. Varraveto offered a way for families to affordably finance solar installations while building equity to pay for grid connectivity and bring homes up to code for connection.

“Colonia electricity access is an interesting, multifaceted issue that touches on many different aspects beyond engineering,” Upshaw said. “It was rewarding on many levels because this is a real issue affecting real people in Texas. Power Across Texas actually took the teams down to see some colonias first-hand, which really helped to put their needs into perspective. I think we came up with a solid and practical proposal, and we want to see if we can actually make our ideas a reality.”

Since the competition, Upshaw and Olmedo said there is continued interest and discussion about finding a social-impact investing solution to electrification of colonia homes. Principal advocates from Power Across Texas, NADBank, SunEdison and AEP/ETT, alongside the UT student team members, have formed work groups to turn the sun-to-grid idea into reality. Next steps include better understanding energy use and expenses in colonia homes, designing systems suited to colonia needs and soliciting funding.