Four summer interns design IKEA stores and Apple Park in Energy3D CAD software

Four students head to the local park to play cards or Bananagrams on their lunch break. For the rest of the day, they sit quietly around a circular table in our Concord, Massachusetts, office, their computers practically touching around the tight space. Some with ear buds in, they are all focused intently on their screens, in a different type of game. These are summer interns, hired by Charles Xie, who developed Energy3D, our computer-aided design (CAD) software, and they’re designing buildings with solar panels.

Mark, Allison, Michael, and Amos (left to right).

The group started with a list of IKEA stores in the United States, tagged on Google Earth to locate them in the real world, and recreated them from the foundation up by building walls and roofs, then adding the critical element in this challenge—solar panels. When they finish a virtual design, they send it to Charles, who simulates the energy output in Energy3D and adds that information back to Google Earth, along with an image of their design on top of the real location on the map. Once they’d tackled all the IKEA buildings in the U.S., they started on the stores in Canada.

Several weeks into this task, their job is more flexible as they design other buildings and solar farms around the world and contribute them to the Virtual Solar Grid designed by Charles. His goal, according to the Virtual Solar Grid website, is to “crowdsource an unprecedented fine-grained, time-dependent, and multi-scale computational model for anyone, believer or skeptic of renewables, to figure out how much of humanity’s energy need can be realistically met by solar power interconnected through smart grids on the global scale—in the spirit of citizen science and independent of any authority.”

The students have created over 70 structures so far, and are contributing to the Virtual Solar Grid with solar farms and buildings in the U.S., Canada, Europe, India, Africa, and China, adding to a growing list, including a panda solar farm in Datong, Shanxi, China, created by 2017 summer intern, Maya Haigis.

One intern, Allison, learned about the Concord Consortium from Maya’s family. She’s enjoying the creativity of the work here, especially in stark contrast to some of her friends from high school who had “typical bad internships, like getting coffee for people.” She says, “Even though we’re sitting at computers with solar panels, it’s real places and real things.” One of those real places came into focus recently. Allison was on a volunteer trip related to food insecurity and food deserts to work in community gardens and food distribution centers in Philadelphia. On the way, her van drove through Paramus, New Jersey—the same location where she had modeled an IKEA building with solar panels! And her group passed right by the building. “That was really cool, and it shows how it’s so connected to the real world.”

Energy3D design of the IKEA store in Paramus, New Jersey.

Hourly energy output for the IKEA Paramus, NJ, located, simulated in Energy3D.

Allison will be a freshman at Johns Hopkins this fall, majoring in applied math. She took statistics in high school and enjoyed the applications to the real world, which she notes are “similar to the data from the solar panels in Energy3D.”

A second intern, Amos, will be a senior in high school this fall and is already thinking about college. He’ll probably major in computer science, though he has many interests: history, politics, philosophy, linguistics, economics, and law. But it’s clear he has a knack for computer science and design. He has taken classes in Python and Java, and in his spare time, he programmed some of the lights in his house to automatically change color based on the time of day, inspired by f.lux, which similarly changes computer displays.

In Energy 3D, he recreated Apple’s iconic “Spaceship” headquarters, which was especially fun for him with so many curves, posing a design challenge requiring many small pieces. Amos has been averaging two or three structures a day in Energy3D, including a recent design for Quincy High School in Massachusetts, which was also “fun to look at” because of its curves. He’s fascinated by the fact that he can view things in 3D and move them around in Energy3D.

Energy3D design of Apple Park in Cupertino, California.

The third intern, Mark, is also impressed with Energy3D, especially how easy it is to use. He says, “It’s cool that you can make scale models without having to do many measurements yourself.” He has made over 20 buildings and two solar farms (including one with about 40,000 virtual solar panels), starting by typing in the address to Google Maps to find an image. Energy3D then copies the image into the program, which allows Mark to create an accurate outline. He notes that building the foundation is fast, but detailing is more time-consuming. Among his creations are several in Texas, where Mark has lived for much of his life. This soon-to-be high school senior has lived in a lot of different places. Those experiences are allowing him to compare the weather around the U.S. and consider implications for solar design.

The fourth intern, Michael, has had a different focus. While sitting around the same table with Allison, Amos, and Mark, he has been reviewing the Energy3D “Solarize Your World” curriculum for schools. Michael is bringing his engineering and computer skills to bear; for a senior project in high school, he coded instructions for a remote-controlled car “a bit bigger than a Barbie Jeep.” Using sensors, the autonomous vehicle avoided collisions when it moved, thanks to the code Michael wrote for the Jeep’s microcontroller. He says, “The Solarize Your World curriculum looks great. I would have enjoyed these types of CAD activities in school.”

In the fall, Michael will be a freshman at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth where he plans to major in computer science. He’s looking forward to meeting new people. And who knows, he may even have a chance to play cards and Bananagrams with a new group of friends.

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