NW Energy Experience Prize: Success Story

5-Year Program Built University-Industry Collaboration, Sparked Innovative Solutions

The NW Energy Experience Prize – "NWEnergyXP" – has concluded a successful run of five years, with lasting positive effects for both the power industry and participating universities.

Administered by Oregon BEST from 2013 to 2017, the program produced significant results, offering dozens of university students the opportunity to collaborate with utility companies to address real-world problems. In the process, the utilities involved in the prize – the Bonneville Power Administration (BPA) and Portland General Electric (PGE) – gained new insights, fresh perspectives, and innovative solutions to technical challenges from the students. For example, some of the work done by the student teams (shown below, presenting) is contributing to the integration of advanced products and processes that meet the utilities' business goals around energy efficiency, integration of renewables, and transmission reliability.

Team presentationOregon BEST played a critical role in launching and administering the NWEnergyXP, working closely with BPA and PGE to refine and enhance the program over the program's 5-year run.

"We launched this prize for two reasons," said Gordon Matthews of the BPA Technology Innovation Office. "We needed a better mechanism to attract the best-and-brightest graduates of local universities to join Bonneville Power, and we also wanted to help the local academic community discover what remarkably complex, interdisciplinary, and exciting challenges characterize the electric power industry today."

The utilities and Oregon BEST also wanted to build collaboration and community by requiring student-led project teams to be comprised of members from at least two of the participating Universities: Oregon State University, Oregon Tech, Portland State University, and Washington State University-Vancouver.

Historically, regional metropolitan universities have submitted proposals as part of the BPA Technology Innovation Office’s annual funding opportunity announcement. However, few of the regional proposals competed successfully against proposals submitted from other parties. Those results started changing five years ago with the energy prize program.

BPA logo"Since we launched the NWEnergyXP, something remarkable happened," Matthews said. "The faculty advisors of the different schools began to collaborate, leveraging the relative strengths of computer engineering at one school with electrical engineering at another to produce winning proposals in each of the past four years."

Not only has the NWEnergyXP fostered a better understanding of the needs of the power industry, it has also helped to develop a collaborative network of faculty and students who are producing notable technological developments that strengthen both the schools and the Pacific Northwest's competitiveness on the global stage.  "In short, we will see dividends from our investment for many years to come," said Matthews.

A total of 34 students on 12 teams from the four participating universities were awarded the NWEnergyXP, which includes financial support for tuition and research project costs. Prize winners also had the opportunity to collaborate with subject matter experts from BPA and PGE, building their professional networks within the industry.  The projects undertaken by the student teams ranged from better controls for photo voltaic installations and the use of unmanned aerial vehicles to inspect power systems and lines, to water heater controls, synchrophasors, roadmapping the integration of renewable energy resources, and more.

"We were pleased to so quickly be able to deliver results for BPA and the region," said Johanna Brickman, Director of Collaborative Innovation at Oregon BEST.  "The program provided the utility industry with opportunities to build relationships with student researchers and faculty in order to address known technical challenges and at the same time generated student interest in pursuing careers in the utility industry."

As the NWEnergyXP completes its successful run, a national program called GridEd, which shares similar objectives but also includes a K-12 component, is hitting its stride. Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and administered by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), GridEd includes universities, electric utilities, and industry advisors from across the country. Both BPA and PGE are involved with GridEd and excited about new opportunities from this national partnership.

"The NWEnergyXP was clearly a success, and we look forward to future opportunities to support industry through other innovative programs," Brickman said.

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