New Challenge Bets on RI Students to Bridge to a Better Future

By Jennifer Bray

450 feet of Brazilian Walnut planks arch gracefully over the Providence River, linking the east and west sides of the City. The pedestrian bridge, which was unveiled in the summer of 2019, is built on the existing piers that used to support the old Interstate 195 highway bridge.

The idea of building the pedestrian bridge supported by the old piers was developed by Kevin Prest, a Rhode Island School of Design architecture student, for his final senior project in 1999. This October there’s a new call for new ideas to help take on a much bigger challenge but harness that same kind of innovation and fresh thoughts from a younger generation.

The Rhode Island BlueGreen Innovation Challenge is a systems design challenge created to leverage one of the state’s key assets – its college and university students – to conceive and develop big ideas at the energy-food-urban community-coastal nexus. Led by National Grid, Sea Ahead – a bluetech startup – and CIC (Cambridge Innovation Center) Providence, which provides incubator workspace, the challenge comes at an ideal time as Rhode Island’s ambitious climate and clean energy goals will require the next generation of leaders to think BIG.

Supporting the BlueGreen Challenge stems from the commitment to the health of our communities and our environment, said Terry Sobolewski, President of National Grid Rhode Island. “As a coastal state, we have the most to gain from an expanding blue economy, and we have the most to lose from rising sea levels and other threats of climate change.”

The goal of the BlueGreen Challenge is to harness the power of fresh student ideas. The hope is that creative new ways will emerge to increase the availability of clean, sustainable energy in Rhode Island, enhance sustainability of the Ocean State’s seafood system, from boat/farm-to-plate, promote the circular economy, improve community resilience (economic empowerment, health, and food security) and inspire the next generation to focus on solving problems that really matter.

“As a leader in Rhode Island’s transition toward a clean energy future, we felt that National Grid was the perfect partner to help us break silos between ocean systems, which is our strong suit, and the clean energy sector,” said SeaAhead’s Project Manager, Taylor Witkin.

As a clean energy company, National Grid helps to power the lives of nearly half a million electric customers and over 250 thousand gas customers in Rhode Island. National Grid’s energy efficiency programs are ranked third in the nation, saving customers over $1 billion in energy costs in the past decade, adding nearly $2 billion to the state’s gross product and avoided 7 million tons of carbon.

In 2016, National Grid helped launch the first offshore wind project off of Block Island. It provides enough energy to power 17,000 homes. Governor Gina Raimondo has set ambitious climate and clean energy goals for the state, calling for 100% renewable electricity by 2030.

Innovation is a vital role in helping Rhode Island reach its clean energy goals, Sobolewski said. “Look at our energy efficiency programs, which have been extremely successful in making the most energy efficient technology the standard for all customers. However, there is a risk of diminishing returns if we do not continue innovating. Many believe future savings will be more difficult to achieve as we seek deeper, more comprehensive measures, but innovation can unlock these opportunities and help us continue moving the ball forward and get to our shared goals.”

Students who want to take part in the BlueGreen Challenge are encouraged to connect sectors that are siloed, for example how Rhode Island’s energy system connects to its food system or how the state’s ports and transportation system can more efficiently support the offshore wind sector while moving toward decarbonization.

Finalists will receive mentorship and feedback from program partners and industry experts. They will have the opportunity to pitch solutions at the Demo Day event in March 2021. There is also prize money and recognition. Eight finalist teams will each receive a $1,500 stipend. The first-place prize winner will receive $10,000, second place $2,000 and third place $500.

The Challenge kicked off with a virtual launch event on Monday, October 26th.  The contest is open to young adults who attend an institution of higher education in Rhode Island or are from Rhode Island and studying at an out-of-state institution. Recent graduates (2 years or less) can also apply. The BlueGreen Challenge kickoff runs through October, team finalists will be announced in December and the winners will be announced in the Spring of 2021.

“We have an extraordinary opportunity to capitalize on our nation-leading educational institutions, which will help develop the innovators and workers who drive us toward a clean energy future,” Sobolewski said.

To learn more about National Grid’s involvement, check out a recent interview Terry Sobolewski held with SeaAhead.