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SAIS Student Team Wins AES Energy Innovation Challenge

AES Team

A student team consisting of Ruta Karpauskaite '21, Aditi Kumar '22, Julia Fernandes Fonteles '21, and Caitlin Candee '22 won the first AES Energy Innovation Challenge, which took place from October 4 to November 12. For winning the competition, Candee, Fonteles, Karpauskaite, and Kumar, known as the Power Troupe during the challenge, will receive a $10,000 prize. The AES Corporation, a global Fortune 500 company currently leading the transformation to smarter, greener energy solutions, will also make a $1,000 donation to Instituto Rede Abrigo, a non-profit social organization that develops and promotes solutions to improve institutional care for children and adolescents in Rio de Janeiro. Multiple SAIS student teams participated in the challenge, which enabled students to gain real-world experience, skills, and insights required to help accelerate the responsible transition to renewable energy generation. The competition also provided students networking opportunities with leaders at the AES Corporation.
The competition consisted of two two-week rounds that challenged graduate student teams to create a new product offering aimed at communities with conventional fuel facilities that are being brought offline or decommissioned. Phase one of the challenge required teams to pick coal plants that will retire in the U.S. before 2030 and develop proposals for areas where the plants are based. Phase two required teams to scale up their solutions to a larger market.
Candee, Fonteles, Karpauskaite, and Kumar focused on decommissioning a Virginia-based coal power plant and replacing the lost capacity with offshore wind facilities. They developed a proposal to build a gravity energy storage tower alongside a wind blade recycling facility to repurpose the coal plant and replace the lost capacity with offshore wind facilities. They reasoned that gravity energy storage was an essential component of their solution since it complimented the intermittent nature of renewable energy and ensured future grid reliability.
The students considered the coal plant and wind blade recycling facility's location an important aspect of their proposal since coal ash waste from the plant and retired wind turbine blades would be converted into concrete blocks used in the gravity energy storage tower. Overall, Candee, Fonteles, Karpauskaite, and Kumar's proposal created a circular, zero-waste solution intended to bypass the landfilling of fiberglass waste and reduce the world's carbon footprint. The second phase of their plan focused on scaling up their model to markets across Virginia and then to the broader PJM Interconnection markets on the East Coast. In addition to their proposal, they designed a transition strategy that emphasized early planning and stakeholder engagement at the beginning of the negotiation process, ensuring social, environmental, and financial implications will be addressed at the early stages of the plant's decommissioning.
Candee, Fonteles, Karpauskaite, and Kumar pointed out that the wind blade recycling strategy offered industrial fiberglass waste recycling services to convert the waste into composite pellets as an intermediate good in multiple industries. Through their research, the students discovered a considerable amount of wind turbine blades appear in landfills throughout the U.S. because earlier generations of blades are discarded due to government tax credits incentivizing the continuous upgrade of turbines. As a result, the students sought to address the turbine blade waste issue by using the discarded blades for concrete blocks for the gravity energy storage facility and fiberglass composite pellet production.

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