A Shift in the Wind

The Penn State Wind Energy Club has taken home several national titles as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Collegiate Wind Competition, including first place finishes in 2014, 2016, and 2017.

You may notice them dotting the ridgelines as you drive along Pennsylvania’s interstates—wind turbines that seem small at a distance but are quite massive with blades averaging 180 feet long and towers that are more than 280 feet tall, about the height of the Statue of Liberty.

According to the Department of Wind Energy Exchange, the state is in the top two in terms of wind energy production leaders along the east coast. Based on projections from a recent report compiled by the U.S. Department of Energy, wind energy could supply 10 percent of the nation’s electricity needs by 2020, increasing to 35 percent by 2035.

The important role that wind plays in terms of renewable energy resources points to a growing demand for expertise in the field. For young engineers and sustainably minded students alike, Penn State’s Wind Energy Club equips students not only with the technical know-how to harness this energy resource, but also provides a platform for applying this knowledge through participation in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Collegiate Wind Competition, a national competition aimed at providing undergraduate students across the nation with real-world skills needed to enter tomorrow’s energy workforce.

The Competition

According to the Department of Energy’s deputy assistant secretary for renewable power, Tim Unruh, students who participate in this competition represent the best the nation has to offer.

“As the U.S. wind industry continues to grow,” says Unruh, “the Collegiate Wind Competition provides unique, hands-on training and an opportunity to help launch the careers of the next generation of wind energy professionals.”

“As the U.S. wind industry continues to grow, the Collegiate Wind Competition provides unique, hands-on training and an opportunity to help launch the careers of the next generation of wind energy professionals.” —Tim Unruh, U.S. Department of Energy

As part of the full competition, student teams are tasked with designing, building, and marketing a complete wind turbine system. Systems are run through a series of tests, including on-site wind tunnel testing to gauge the turbine’s performance. An additional hypothetical challenge chosen by the Department of Energy also tasks teams with imagining and planning out a larger-scale project that supports the wind energy industry. This year’s challenge involves the planning of a hypothetical utility wind farm that maximizes energy production and balances environmental and community impacts.

Each scenario requires cross-disciplinary expertise, which aligns well with the Wind Energy Club’s approach to the challenges associated with the competition. The club is open to students of all majors and is comprised of teams that are based on sets of expertise needed for the competition. Teams cover various areas including aerodynamics, which focuses on the components that make up the wind turbine; electrical design, which focuses on the system that controls and optimizes the turbine; and business, which helps develop the plan to market the system. A team also oversees the design and build of the generator for the wind turbine system as well as the support structure for the drivetrain.

According to Susan Stewart, lead strategic adviser to the club and associate teaching professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering in Penn State’s College of Engineering, the Collegiate Wind Competition is what spurred the formation of the Wind Energy Club in 2014. The team took first place that year, beating out nine university teams as part of the Department of Energy’s inaugural event.

“While most teams that compete in the competition include members from multiple disciplines, we are unique in that we operate as a club thus allowing our members to work across these disciplinary boundaries in unique ways,” says Stewart. “Many other teams incorporate the competition as a part of their senior capstone or other design courses.”

“While most teams that compete in the competition include members from multiple disciplines, we are unique in that we operate as a club thus allowing our members to work across these disciplinary boundaries in unique ways." —Susan Stewart, lead strategic adviser to the Penn State Wind Energy Club

Female faculty member holds a rotor blade while a student attaches it to a scaled down wind turbine

Hands-on Guidance

Susan Stewart, lead strategic adviser to the Wind Energy Club and associate teaching professor in the Department of Aerospace Engineering, provides hands-on guidance during a club meeting where they worked on constructing a scaled-down wind turbine.

IMAGE: Penn State

Earning a National Reputation

Following their first-place victory in 2014, the Wind Energy Club has continued to place among the top three in the competition for the past four years. This is no small feat—as club president and mechanical engineering major Adam Proulx explains, a lot goes into building the turbine and the electrical system to power it. Proulx’s interest in the club stemmed from his brother’s involvement in it. Now, he recognizes the valuable experience he has gained through it, by applying technical knowledge to real-world problem-solving scenarios as part of the competition.

“There was a lot of pressure coming into the technical challenge last year,” says Proulx, recalling the team who competed in May 2017 at the National Wind Technology Center near Boulder, Colorado. “Knowing my brother had just competed in the full competition and won made it personal. We knew our electrical system was not up to par as in years past, and I just remember long nights at the hotel scrambling to iron out technical problems to get something working and put into the wind tunnel for testing.”

Luckily the hard work paid off. The 2017 technical challenge team beat out nine other teams from across the nation taking first place overall and first place in the Tunnel Testing contest.

Six members of the Penn State Wind Energy Club stand and hold trophies

Wind Energy Club 2017 DoE Collegiate Wind Competition Winners

The Wind Energy Club took first place overall and first place in the Tunnel Testing contest at the U.S. Department of Engergy Collegiate Wind Competition 2017 Technical Challenge. Pictured, left to right: Richard Auhl, team adviser and aerospace engineering senior research associate; Milton Rahman, aerospace engineering junior; Mitch Proulx, mechanical engineering senior; Jason Cornelius, aerospace engineering senior; Patrick Nicodemus, electrical engineering and mathematics senior; and Adam Proulx, mechanical engineering sophomore.

IMAGE: Dennis Schroeder/National Renewable Energy Lab

“There was a lot of pressure coming into the technical challenge last year. Knowing my brother had just competed in the full competition and won made it personal.” —Adam Proulx, club president and mechanical engineering major

Overcoming those obstacles also provided Proulx and teammates a valuable learning experience in project management and team communications.

“You could be the greatest engineer in the world, but it doesn’t mean much if you can’t communicate and work with team members to get through a challenge like that,” says Proulx. “One thing I’ve learned in my role as club president is that so much comes with being a leader—making sure people are taking care of their responsibilities, getting to meetings on time, and a bunch of other seemingly small tasks that add up to a lot.”

An Interdisciplinary Approach

The club also benefits from the guidance of College of Engineering faculty advisers including Stewart and fellow faculty members in the Department of Aerospace Engineering—assistant research professor Richard Auhl and associate professor Sven Schmitz. Beyond that, the club’s membership and pool of knowledge extends across disciplines at Penn State, utilizing the expertise of students from various colleges including the College of Engineering, the Smeal College of Business, College of Information Sciences and Technology, and the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences.

Smeal marketing professor Karen Winterich teaches a sustainability marketing course that has consulted with the Wind Energy Club for a number of years, providing guidance in addressing some of the business-to-business and business-to-consumer marketing strategies associated with the development of their wind turbines.

“The Wind Energy Club is looking at a real solution, a renewable source of energy,” says Winterich. “I love the interdisciplinary approach to it. Students who are involved in the technical aspects can build this great product, but then they benefit from business and marketing students asking, ‘who is it useful to, who are your competitors, is it sustainable, and is it cost-effective?’”

According to Stewart, the entrepreneurial nature of the club is certainly a driver for students getting involved. 

“Students get to basically design a product and take it to prototype stage. For engineering students, they’re not only considering the technical aspects involved in building it, but also considering how it will be marketed and sold. So, the students are not just doing this for credit, they’re finding that they get tangible skills out of the experience.”

Two students and a faculty member working in the lab on a wind turbine electrical system.

Richard Auhl works with Proulx and student member Kyle Gladden

Penn State College of Engineering assistant research professor Richard Auhl, Wind Energy Club president Adam Proulx, and student member Kyle Gladden work on electrical components involved in controlling and optimizing the wind turbine system in their lab space in the Hammond Building.

IMAGE: Michelle Bixby

“The students are not just doing this for credit, they’re finding that they get tangible skills out of the experience.” —Susan Stewart

These tangible skills become extremely useful to students, especially when entering the recruitment and interviewing process with prospective employers within the energy sector.

“I have talked about experiences I’ve gained from being part of the Wind Energy Club in interviews,” says senior aerospace engineering major Suchitha Nama. “Recruiters like to see that you’re enhancing your skillset outside of the classroom, and they are also interested in the specific knowledge you’ve gained around wind energy. It helps you stand out in an interview process.”

Nama, whose specific interests are based in commercial aviation, joined the Wind Energy Club to apply her aerospace background in a new way. Her experience has exposed her to different software associated with wind turbine optimization and also to industry terms and language associated with the wind energy field.

“The experience has allowed me to apply principles of aerospace engineering learned in the classroom to a different industry and something other than airplanes,” says Nama. “I think this is important, especially to those first-year and sophomore students who are involved in the club. Being exposed to industry language and technical tools will definitely put you ahead not only when you enter courses for your major, but also in the job market.”

Generating Interest Among Future Engineers

Though there are countless benefits to members of the Wind Energy Club when it comes to boosting their resumes and career prospects within the energy sector, club members also like having the opportunity to inspire a future generation of scientists, engineers, and business leaders who may come to realize the value of renewable energy resources.

As part of their outreach activities, the Wind Energy Club participates in several events aimed at elementary, middle- and high-school-aged students who might be interested in STEM careers.

In conjunction with Penn State’s College of Education and the Center for Science and the Schools, the Wind Energy Club participates in the KidWind Challenge, which is an engineering design competition where students construct and test wind turbines to generate as much electricity as possible, while learning about the advantages of wind energy. Students are judged on turbine performance in a wind tunnel, turbine design quality, and process and their knowledge of the wind industry.

“The KidWind Challenge is the ultimate wind energy learning experience for students,” said Stewart. “The hands-on, interactive nature of the competition gives them great insight into the benefits and challenges of harnessing wind power and helps them understand concepts like energy conversion and electricity generation. Most importantly, they gain an understanding of our energy future.”

"The hands-on, interactive nature of the competition gives them great insight into the benefits and challenges of harnessing wind power and helps them understand concepts like energy conversion and electricity generation. Most importantly, they gain an understanding of our energy future.” —Susan Stewart

Although the competition provides students the opportunity to understand wind energy technology and development, it also aims to get students—particularly girls and underrepresented populations—excited about careers in STEM-related fields.

“Being in a club that has that kind of outreach is important to me,” says Nama, who credits Dr. Stewart for her efforts in KidWind and inspiring the next generation. “I’m planning to volunteer in KidWind next year hoping there’s a young female student that I can have an impact on, to show her that there are females involved in these fields.” 

“I never had an opportunity to do something like that when I was young,” says Proulx in speaking about his involvement in the club’s outreach activities. “It’s neat to see kids get excited about something you’re working on, and I think it’s important to expose future generations to a resource that will play a large role in the future of energy production.”

Re-imagining Energy

This story is part of "Re-imagining Energy," a series highlighting some of the ways in which Penn State’s wide-ranging expertise in energy-related research is yielding solutions in the push for sustainable power. To read more stories in the series, visit news.psu.edu.