During the month of April 2022, more than 140 students from over 20 different majors across the University of Chicago worked fervently to solve a problem for a business client. They presented their solutions to a panel of expert judges as participants in the Phoenix Sustainability Initiative’s inaugural Sustainability Case Competition.
The Phoenix Sustainability Initiative (PSI) is UChicago’s largest student-run environmental organization. The group aims to promote environmental awareness and integrate sustainable practices at UChicago and across surrounding communities through collaboration, inclusivity, dedication, and creativity. The idea for a case competition that intersected business, data science, and sustainability was born in the fall of 2021.
“Throughout my four years, I’ve noticed that sustainability is usually only thought about from a non-profit, social impact perspective, and I wanted to demonstrate to the campus community that sustainability is more interdisciplinary and expansive than they could even imagine,” says PSI co-president and graduating fourth year Shannon Davis. “We desired to create an experience that could give students from all backgrounds and levels of interest a tangible experience in the sustainability movement through in-depth, case work with a client.”
To get their idea off the ground, PSI turned to EPIC for help with financial sponsorship and advising. Ultimately, the endeavor involved many more players across the UChicago community, including graduate student mentors from the Booth School of Business, the Harris School of Public Policy, and the Department of Geophysical Sciences.
“We wanted to see how we could galvanize and unify the incredible intellect and talent of the UChicago community to together back the sustainability movement,” recalls Zach Young, a member of the PSI Case Competition Working Team and graduating fourth year. “We wanted to bring together the entire UChicago community like members of our graduate institutions to serve as mentors for burgeoning undergraduates.”
It was important to PSI that students had the opportunity to provide real, impactful solutions to a climate-related business problem using interdisciplinary methodologies and processes. PSI joined with Danish multinational power company, Ørsted, as their business partner. As the world’s leading developer in offshore wind power, Ørsted also develops, constructs, and operates onshore wind farms, solar farms, energy storage facilities, renewable hydrogen and green fuels facilities, and bioenergy plants.
Students could sign up to participate in the competition as a team in either the Quantitative or Qualitative division and were prompted to provide an innovative recommendation for Ørsted that would expand their share of the energy market and renewable footprint while considering a multitude of key factors. Each team presented their recommendations to a panel of judges and scores were tallied to determine the winners.
Ørsted’s Jonathan Vasdekas, director of development of onshore wind power, served as the organization’s point of contact.
“The PSI Case Competition was an amazing opportunity to work with the extremely talented and hard-working students at the University of Chicago,” says Vasdekas. “All of the presentations provided fascinating results, and the folks at Ørsted are excited to work towards implementing some of the solutions that were presented to us.”
For many students, this was their first time participating in a case competition. Daniel Arad, a first year studying neuroscience participated in one of the winning teams, Sweet Greens.
“This case competition gave me an opportunity to investigate what one way of working to create sustainability might look like,” he says.
The Quantitative division sought recommendations that involved rigorous analytical skills. The first-place team, KNICE Solutions, investigated whether utility scale batteries at Ørsted facilities can increase profits and smooth variable spikes in electricity supply from wind and solar capacity. The team, which included Zayne El-Kaissi, Sukhm Kang, and Jack Nugent used Python to develop a model that simulates the impact of adding batteries to Ørsted energy facilities.
Zayne El-Kaissi, a second year double majoring in economics and mathematics reflected on how proud he was of their recommendation.
“We produced very clear recommendations like ‘Do X at Y location with a timeline of Z and expected results W,’ which is never something I’ve done before in class or personal projects,” he says.
Teams in the Qualitative division utilized financial, policy, and management analysis strategies to come up with a recommendation. The first-place team, Sweet Greens, recommended Ørsted expand into flow batteries as a solution for renewable energy storage and included Adera Craig, Bryan Zhang, Nina Mussa, Daniel Arad, and Jojo Wang.
Adera Craig of Sweet Greens, a first year studying biology and urban studies, says, “I am most proud of the interdisciplinary approach we implemented as a team in our recommendation. After considering technology, infrastructure, policy and market trends we were able to narrow down our options, which was challenging but also rewarding at the same time because it exposed us to so many different sectors of energy.”
In second place in the Quantitative division was Sustainability Squad with Julia Du, Andres Llado, Lily Mao, Emma Yan, and Jielu Yu. In second place in the Qualitative division was Green Beans with Samuel Heintz, Bayard Walsh, and Anqi Qu. The Wildcard winner, which could come from either division, was WoMAN with Abby Adigun, Nitika Kurma, Mahum Sheikh, and Annie Dhal.
Sukhm Kang of the winning KNICE Solutions team is a second year studying computational and applied mathematics. He says he would participate in this kind of case competition again. “It was a fun experience and I got closer with my teammates over the process. I also got better at coding and public speaking through the competition.”
Overall, the entire PSI working team was thrilled with how well their first case competition turned out and found it to be incredibly rewarding.
“Easily, the biggest reward is hearing the presentations and all the participants speak to the magnitude of knowledge they obtained about the renewable energy sector and their interest in the sector in the future,” says PSI’s Davis.
They also hope for it to continue in years to come. PSI co-president and graduating fourth year Mercer Winer, reflects, “We received a huge amount of interest, even just for our inaugural competition with no precedent or name-recognition.”
Looking back, Young, one of the competition organizers, commented on PSI’s partnership with EPIC.
“EPIC’s support has been indispensable,” Young says. “The University of Chicago is truly lucky to have an organization such as EPIC and is really a resource that more UChicago undergraduates seeking to make a difference in climate, energy, sustainability, or environmentalism should tap into.