Focusing on innovative solutions to the world’s energy challenges

Like many things in 2020, the annual MIT EnergyHack hosted by the MIT Energy Club looked very different this year. For the first time since its founding six years ago, MIT EnergyHack was run as an all-virtual event. The organizing team did not take this as a setback, and instead embraced the opportunity to reach out to a wider audience than ever before, inviting hackers from all over the world to participate. Guided by principles of engagement, impact, and innovation, “the goal of MIT EnergyHack 2020 was to provide a concrete opportunity for the broader energy community to continue collaboration and innovation even in a transformed collegiate landscape,” says Arina Khotimsky, a sophomore in materials science and engineering and MIT EnergyHack’s communications director.

A total of 260 students comprising 64 teams presented pitches to company judges in seven challenge statement tracks. Combined, the teams spent over 2,300 hours between Nov. 6-8 developing their solutions. All students, regardless of degree level, were welcome to participate, creating a valuable opportunity for collaboration between different universities, countries, and degree programs.

The EnergyHack organizing team was composed of 11 MIT undergraduate and graduate students and led by Managing Director Kelly Wu. “Since the summer, our team has been working to rethink the structure of the hackathon and modify the events to a virtual setting,” says Wu. No longer limited to a single weekend of in-person hacking, a new addition to the programming included four days of pre-hacking events, which allowed participants to connect with company sponsors through virtual info sessions and coffee chats. In addition, participants heard from two speakers: Colin Clancy Kelsall, an MIT PhD student in mechanical engineering; and Harvey Michaels, a professor in the MIT Sloan School of Management.

This year, the Energy Club worked with seven companies and organizations to create problem statements for participating hackers to solve. Challenges were presented by ChargePoint, Saint-Gobain, Iberdrola/Avangrid, NextEra, Macquarie’s Green Investment Group, Chevron, and Sterlite Power. The challenges ranged from behavioral management on energy utility construction sites, to proposing business models for energy resources, to determining construction and building techniques to reduce a home’s life-cycle carbon footprint.

Teams were tasked to give a five-minute presentation followed by five minutes of Q&A from judges. One team from each challenge track advanced to the finals, where they pitched their solutions to a live virtual audience, company judges, and representatives from the MIT Energy Initiative and Department of Chemical Engineering.

Team Joules in Lockdown came in third, winning $1,000 for their solution to the Chargepoint challenge; team Currents of Change came in second, winning $1,500 for their solution to the NextEra challenge; and team Marginal Utility took first place, winning $2,000 for their solution to the Macquarie GIG challenge. Solutions to the challenges can be viewed on the MIT EnergyHack website.

Overall, participants and finalists were appreciative of the learning experience and the opportunity to connect with individuals in the energy industry. “As a first-time hacker, MIT EnergyHack was a great place to get a grasp of the hackathon ecosystems while observing brilliant minds,” says Tugce Delipinar, a participant in this year’s event. Kevin Wu, another participant, adds, “I enjoyed seeing all the perspectives that went into our ingenious solution, and going online only enabled this further because it allowed more participation from around the world.”

Additional support for MIT EnergyHack 2020 was provided by the Department of Chemical Engineering, Department of Physics, and MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative. A special partnership with the Rotary Club of Mayfair (UK) expanded the hackathon’s international participation.

“This is the first time such a large-scale energy hackathon has been run in a virtual setting. The event provided a chance for an unprecedented number of creative students, who are our future energy leaders, to come together from across the globe to tackle some of our most critical issues in energy,” says Wu. “This year's event was momentous, and a tremendous feat to pull off, made possible by our strong student planning team.”