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Cleantech hackathon’s winning team leveraged interdisciplinary skills

April 17, 2019

This article is based in part on a report in the Stanford Energy Journal.

By Mark Golden

black and white drawing of a cartoonish water heater character smiling

Walt-E, a water heater cartoon character, cannot help solve climate change unless he finds his way into people’s homes. But he was able to help the diverse student team that invented him win Stanford University’s first-ever clean energy hackathon. "How about dat, huh?!" Walt-E said.

Four sponsors, including Google and the French multinational integrated oil and gas company Total S.A., each posed a real-world challenge they face to start the Stanford Cleantech Challenge on Friday evening. Hacking started at 10 p.m. Solutions were due 24 hours later, with food and ample coffee supplied. Each challenge was assigned to several of the 20 student teams. The winners of each of the four challenges won $150, then competed for a grand prize of $1,000.

Sunday was judgement day with all teams presenting their ideas. Event sponsor Silicon Valley Clean Energy, an alternative power supplier, asked for ways to convince its customers to convert their heating systems from natural gas to electricity, which can save money and reduce a home’s carbon footprint. Home Team and its Walt-E emerged in first place for SVCE’s electrification challenge and then won the grand prize. Their solution, in addition to a modern, heat-pump water heater, was for SVCE to partner with solar providers, leverage customer networks, and help customers use Internet of Things technology to optimize electricity use.


Teams start hacking Friday night in the basement of Huang Engineering Center. Ryan
Stocking, MS ’20, and Adekunle Awojinrin, BS ’20, of team Total Clean. (Credit: Miki Yu)

“By design, this was not a traditional computer science hackathon. Challenges drew from a wide variety of disciplines, including engineering, finance and policy,” said Kailash Raman, BS ’21, who co-directed the Stanford Energy Club competition with Anchit Narain, BS ’20, and Yachen Sun, MS ’20. Google, in fact, told hackers that they did not need to write a single line of code to solve their challenge.

Home Team’s students cover a lot of the campus. Two of them are in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment & Resources. In combination with their master’s degrees in environment and resources, one is pursuing an MBA and the other a law degree. The other two members of Home Team are pursuing master’s degrees in civil and environmental engineering, and in business.


Home Team, rejuvenated for Sunday, from left, Eric Trusiewicz, MBA ’19, Robbie Harding,
’MS ’19, Valerie Shen, MS/MBA ’19, and Michael Levin, MS/JD ’19. (Credit: Miki Yu)

“Everyone on our team cares about these issues deeply, so seeing how we could put our education and experience into practice was rewarding,” said team member Michael V. Levin, JD/MS ’19. “And it was inspiring to see so much enthusiasm from so many bright people.”

The Energy Club “absolutely” intends to hold the competition annually, Raman said.

Runners up

Team AC/DC took home the $500 runner-up prize. It’s four graduate students are all in engineering: mechanical, civil and environmental, and materials science. Team AC/DC won the challenge posed by Total, which was to design an off-grid, solar-battery-diesel energy system for a gas station in Guinea, Africa intended to minimize use of diesel fuel. The team’s solution included energy efficiency retrofits and a novel molten salt battery for energy storage.


Team AC/DC, from left, Bessie Noll, BS/MS ’19, Hadiza Felicien, MS ’20, Michelle
Solomon, PhD candidate materials science, and Velvet Gaston, MS ’20. (Credit: Miki Yu)

Google’s challenge was to design a web-based tool to get the company’s suppliers to increase use of renewable energy and cut carbon emissions collectively. Team Engineeriza won this challenge by developing an online platform that encouraged suppliers to pool the risks of renewable investments and provided a way for suppliers to connect with renewable energy manufacturers around the world. Team members were Daniel Izu, BS ’20, Avery Dekshenieks, BS ’21, Calvin McSweeney-Pourtalet, MS ’19, and Vladimir Kozlow, MS ’19.

The fourth sponsor, The Coalition for Renewable Natural Gas, challenged teams to draft a plan for a large company to use methane from landfills, biomass, etc. upgraded to the quality of commercial natural gas. Team COWS found that the most attractive incentives exist in switching transportation to such fuel. The foursome: Robert Spragg, MS ’19, Timna Zimet, MS ’20, Chunyue Wei, MS ’20, and Justin Luke, MS ’20.

The event was also sponsored by Stanford’s TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy. Volunteer judges were Jeff Byron (Band of Angels), Beth Zotter (Cyclotron Road), Amanda North (Plan C Advisors) and Jeff Ball (Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy & Finance, Stanford).