Community Engagement

Platte River Power Authority Uses Vehicles for Student Engagement, Community Outreach

Platte River Power Authority (PRPA) is using model car racing to speed up its community outreach efforts.

For the past couple of years, the Colorado public power utility has sponsored NoCo Time Trials, a program in which student teams compete to have the fastest solar and battery powered model cars. Winners have the opportunity to participate in statewide races sponsored by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

NREL has hosted the Junior Solar/Battery Middle School Car Competition in Golden, Colo., for the past 30 years.

NoCo Time Trials (photo courtesy of PRPA)

The aims of the program are threefold. “It supports STEM [Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics] education while providing a line of sight for kids and their parents for careers in the utility industry, and it expands our brand beyond their four walls,” Steve Roalstad, communications and marketing manager at PRPA, said.

The program is open to middle school students in the PRPA communities of Estes Park, Fort Collins, Longmont and Loveland, and interest has been growing, despite disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

NoCo time trials (photo courtesy of PRPA)

The utility began the program in 2019. Thirty-five student teams from seven schools participated. The time trials were canceled in 2020 because of COVID-19, but PRPA nevertheless made grants to the schools that had signed up for the program. Ordinarily PRPA gives grants to the participating schools at the conclusion of the time trials to help support STEM education.

NREL canceled its program last year, but PRPA held its time trials although they were virtual. A total of 85 student teams from 10 schools participated. The event concluded on May 13 with a virtual awards ceremony for three middle school teams with winning solar and battery cars.

Under the program PRPA provides the teams with model car kits the students use to build solar and battery power cars. The kits are standardized, but with the aid of teacher coaches, the students tweak them and experiment with their cars in an effort to make them go faster.

NoCo time trials (photo courtesy of PRPA)

There are a variety of things they have tried, Roalstad said. They can try to lighten the chassis or optimize the gearing. In one case, students used PopSockets used to support smart phones to adjust the solar panels to maximize exposure to sun, he said.

PRPA’s budget for the program is “a little north of $20,000 a year,” which includes grants to the participating schools and, mostly, the cost of purchasing the model car kits.

It is a “tremendous experience to see the problem solving skills the children employ,” Roalstad said. “Those are the kinds of attributes we are looking for in the future.”

And for the students, “it helps them to connect the dots to the kind of career they could have. It also connects the dots for the parents, as well.”

The use of solar and battery power also aligns the program with the direction the utility industry is going, Kendal Perez, communications and marketing specialist at PRPA, said. “We tell them that is also what we are working on. It is very impactful.”

Roalstad admits that PRPA also has a “selfish” reason for sponsoring the program. By the time the participating students get out of college or trade school, up to 50% of the utility work force will be ready to retire. “We are opening our recruiting now,” he said.

NoCo time trails virtual ceremony (photo courtesy of PRPA)

PRPA has reached out to NREL, and they are planning to host a state tournament next May, Perez said. So PRPA has reached out to the teachers in its territory to gauge the interest in the program next year, she said.

The event is memorable enough for the kids that teachers are asking if Platte River would consider doing it for high schools, Perez said. For now, the focus is on organizing an in-person event for middle school students next year at Platte River’s newly-constructed headquarters campus.