News Release

UC San Diego Ph.D. student team wins international energy economics competition

From left: Zhenhua Zhang, Manh Tri Dao, Jenny
Nicolas and Shiny Choudhruy

Nov. 17, 2023 -- What kind of regulations should geothermal power projects be subject to? That was the problem that a team of four Ph.D. students at the University of California San Diego had to solve at the 2023 International Case Competition. They did–and won first place. 

Manh Tri Dao, Jenny Nicolas, Shiny Choudhury, and Zhenhua Zhang are advised or co-advised by Michael Davidson, a former case competition champion, and director of the Power Transformation Lab and a professor in the UC San Diego Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering as well as the School of Global Policy and Strategy.  

This year’s competition involved the evaluation of geothermal projects for the hypothetical Energy Oversight Board (EOB), experienced in regulating conventional oil and gas but new to geothermal energy. The team, acting as consultants, was tasked with a techno-economic assessment for potential geothermal development.

The competition, organized by the U.S. Association for Energy Economics (USAEE), is a one-of-a-kind opportunity for student teams to apply their knowledge of economics, engineering, and policy analysis. Participants demonstrate their skills and ideas for potential employers, contribute to solving challenges in the field of energy economics, and compete for monetary prizes. Participating teams worked on the designated case problem over a period of three weeks and submitted a written report detailing their methods and solution to USAEE.

The competition winners–the UC San Diego team–and runners up were announced at the 40th USAEE/IAEE North American Conference, Nov. 5 to 8 in Chicago.

The UC San Diego team’s winning report, "Harnessing Geothermal Power: Global Lessons and Decision-Making Strategies”, summarized international experiences, detailed benefit-cost analyses, and developed a multi-criteria decision-making (MCDM) framework using the analytic hierarchy process, a method that structures complex decisions into a hierarchy of factors and alternatives for systematic evaluation. This approach, applied hypothetically as if consulting with experts, allowed them to balance various aspects such as environmental impact, economic feasibility, and technological readiness. The MCDM framework can be used to assess hypothetical geothermal projects looking to be permitted. The team developed GeoVal, an open-source Python-based evaluation tool for geothermal projects that are to be interconnected to the electricity grid. GeoVal assists in understanding the implications of the grid integration under different levels of renewable energy penetration, and its impact on various components of system cost and electricity prices.

Throughout the competition, the team showcased the potential of the toolkit they developed and communicated key insights to the client. While the research interests of each team member vary, their unique backgrounds strengthened their overall approach. Manh Tri, with his background in power system modeling and political economy analysis of the global energy transition, played a key role in identifying global strategies for successful geothermal deployment and developing a holistic MCDM framework. Jenny’s research on incorporating social factors into solar resource modeling, coupled with her experience in solar development, allowed her to bring valuable insights into responsible commercial development strategies for the EOB. Shiny, with her background in advanced nuclear technologies and experience in developing complex energy system optimization models, played a crucial role in developing GeoVal for the technical assessment of Geothermal projects. Zhenhua, who researches the design of wholesale electricity markets and the impacts of strategic participation behaviors, significantly contributed to the development and application of GeoVal in analyzing system-level impacts.


Media Contacts

Ioana Patringenaru
Jacobs School of Engineering