Power of cooperation
Students in different departments at Chico State form winning wind-power team
When a team of Chico State students and its faculty mentors entered a wind-power competition through the U.S. Department of Energy, winning was not their top priority.
First of all, the teaching university was one of 12 competitors in a pool dominated by research institutions—Penn State, University of Wisconsin, University of Maryland and two University of Massachusetts campuses, among others. So, developing a project that simply met their own standards was the best approach for the “WindCats.”
Sure enough, Penn State took first place overall. But Chico State walked away with a win as well, placing first in the Deployment Strategy category. That meant the judges deemed their project—a wind turbine designed to power schoolrooms in India—most feasible to implement.
The WindCats’ reaction at the awards ceremony, held May 25 in New Orleans, was electric.
“Even though we were the smallest team there, I think we all screamed the loudest,” said Colleen Robb, a business professor who traveled with her colleague from the engineering school, David Alexander, and nine of the 20 students who participated.
“We were up against big, well-funded, lot-of-history kind of schools,” said Alex Van Dewark, a Chico State business student. “In competitions such as these, it’s always relative to how well everyone else does; so I expected us to do well for our standards, but I didn’t necessarily expect us to be competitive with these powerhouses.
“We were pleasantly surprised.”
Chico State’s winning plan comprises technology plus an organization to finance, dispatch and install it.
On the technical side, the WindCats designed a 700-watt turbine, mounted 30 feet up, charging four 12-watt batteries that in turn power LED lighting for three classrooms. The batteries are standard lead-acid; Alexander explained that “the whole system in general is largely based on off- the-shelf components that are relatively easy to get and relatively inexpensive.”
Equipped with such a turbine, a school could stay lit for two days without wind blowing.
For the business model, students chose nonprofit versus commercial. They named their organization “Diya”: in Hindi, a noun for “light” and a verb for “give.”
“The students were just thrilled about that,” Robb said, “because the name basically means ‘to give light.’”
The WindCats settled on their concept after a semester-long deliberation. Robb said students “ruled out idea after idea until we came upon a real need for power in rural India because there’s such a lack of infrastructure, and that’s when all the pieces just started to fit.”
Their team broke into three smaller groups, each focused on one component—tech, business and deployment. But they had to work together for the entire project to gel. Engineers couldn’t design without knowing the scale or budget; entrepreneurs couldn’t plan without knowing the logistics; etc. Only one student joined two groups (Jorge Alvarado, a tech lead who also was involved with deployment).
“So many decisions were interrelated,” Alexander said, “that the whole team had to get together weekly.”
The competition’s structure elicits interdisciplinary collaboration, namely between business and engineering students. Aubrey Connors, a business group member, said at times “it was hard to coordinate, get everyone on the same page, because we just all kind of spoke different languages it seemed.”
Coalescing around India—which happened in part due to the presence of graduate adviser Aditya Joshi, a native of that country—the team’s communication smoothed the second semester.
“It transcended very quickly from this is a school function and this is a competition to ‘Wow, this is a problem we actually want to solve,’” Van Dewark said. “It became bigger than the catalyst of why it started, which was the competition.”
Perhaps because the students took it so seriously, others took them seriously. They reached out to ActionAid International (an NGO that works against poverty) while developing the project; at the competition, others reached out to them.
Van Dewark said one of the judges (Charles Newcomb of Endurance Wind Power) told him afterward, “I don’t understand, is this a presentation in a competition or a real business? Is this really in motion, because that’s what it seems like … I’m ready to invest.”
Connors, meanwhile, said representatives of a U.S.-to-India outreach (Asha for Education) were “sad that we weren’t a real business—they were ready to start giving us donations.”
As a result of the response, and the win, the WindCats are considering whether to turn their school project into a real-world one. The Diya website (www.diyaproject.org) already delineates an organizational structure, including Van Dewark as executive director, Connors as a volunteer development manager and both Alexander and Robb as faculty advisers.
“I can’t say 100 percent for sure we’re going to make this into a business,” Van Dewark said, “but I can tell you that we have a lot of traction and so we definitely are exploring [that prospect] through the summer.”