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Driven to succeed: exceptional quartet of young innovators investigate electric vehicles as a power source

August 20, 2012

Winners of OPA Connections Competition graduate from Queen's University with valuable industry experience

Queen's University recent grads Kris Harris (second from left) and Maclean Shea (second from right) are seen here receiving certificates for best project in the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) category of OCE's Connections Competition at Discovery. Minister of Economic Development and Innovation Brad Duguid (left), OCE President & CEO Tom Corr (right) and OPA Vice President of Conservation Andrew Pride (centre) were on-hand to recognize Harris, Shea and teammates John Sparks and Vaughn DiMarco (not pictured) for their project on vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology.

The entrepreneur, the executive, the Chancellor's scholar, the innovator - the very opposite of the Breakfast Club. This group of fourth-year Queen's University Engineering students had more in common than they had apart. When they came together to solve a real-world problem, they had to push their skill sets to their limits, ultimately graduating with a degree and another shared title - that of consultant.

In their final year, Kris Harris, Maclean Shea, John Sparks and Vaughn DiMarco all enrolled in Ontario Centres of Excellence's Connections program, a program that offers students the opportunity to apply technical and professional skills to real-world problems, acting as consultants or subcontractors to industry partners. At Queen's, this program is run as part of the curriculum in the APSC 480: Multidisciplinary Design Project, aimed at developing a student's design, innovation, and professional skills.

Separately, the team already had exceptional leadership skills and other transferable skills they picked up in pursuits outside pure engineering. Harris started his own for-profit note sharing company, Shea held numerous executive roles in the Queen's chapter of Engineering without Borders, DiMarco founded committee connecting students and alumni, while Sparks was named a Queen's Chancellor's Scholar for his academic ability and leadership qualities. The Connections program transported them outside an insulated university environment, into a real-world industry setting where they had to work together and put these skills to work.

“Our project required us to design economic models and business strategies – non-traditional engineering design tools, so we really had to push outside our comfort zone,” said Shea, the group's lead spokesperson. “Industry is multi-disciplinary – you have to take on whatever’s thrown at you. This project really helped us prepare for that reality.” 

Shea and his group chose/were assigned to PowerStream as their client, an electric utility servicing the area just north of Toronto. PowerStream, like many electric companies, is interested in alternative forms of energy, placing it in the Ontario Power Authority (OPA) Energy Connections subsection of the Connections program. The team’s task was to investigate opportunities for vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, which would allow networks of electric vehicles to act as battery back-ups for entire grid – supplying or drawing energy on demand.

The client’s request was a research project, designed to help frame PowerStream’s thinking about V2G and assess the profitability of various market opportunities. They concluded that the regulation services model, where electric vehicles (EVs) would be contracted to provide small amounts energy to match system generation with demand was the most profitable option. Harris, Shea, Sparks and Dimarco developed a dynamic, easy-to-update, user-friendly economic model that could keep up with the electric car boom and the growing demand on the grid – a model which won them the Best OPA Project in the annual Connections Competition at OCE’s Discovery trade show.

“Having our hard work recognized by OCE and the Connections Competition judges was a great way of concluding both the project and our undergraduate degrees,” said Harris. “That being said, winning wasn't a key metric that we used to determine the project's success. The skills that we developed throughout the program and the fact that we were able to offer a useful deliverable to our client were the most rewarding outcomes.”

The team’s work could apply to any power utility in Ontario and potentially beyond, and PowerStream is eager to share it. The company plans to take the model created and work through it to fully understand it and tweak it if necessary. The project was devised as a first phase, with the plan to work with the Connections / Queen’s program again next year to move forward with implementation strategies.

As for the team, they are moving forward as well. After graduating in the June convocation they have taken the valuable industry experience they received and continued down the path of innovation. Kris Harris’s Loop Notes business is now serving four schools and he is the Operations Manager at web design company Lucid Strategies in Ottawa. Vaughn DiMarco has also co-founded a web-based company in Kingston, Givingly, a charitable giving platform, which he will dedicate himself to full-time after finishing the summer at the Queen's Summer Innovation Institute. John Sparks is interning at the Bimose Tribal Council in Kenora before he heads to the University of Victoria to pursue a law degree in the fall. And Maclean Shea is a Summer Associate in Ottawa at the Boston Consulting Group, which among other industries, has expertise in Energy & Environment.

“We found that the OCE Connections program facilitates a much-needed link between academia and 'real-life' work environments,” said Harris. “The leveraging of networking opportunities, funding provided, client visits, and feedback proffered have already been beneficial to our post graduation endeavours.”

The Ontario Power Authority (OPA) is a major supporter of OCE's Connections program, encouraging companies to consider energy related projects by creating OPA Energy Connections. OPA Energy Connections projects aim specifically to improve Ontario's capability to achieve energy reductions through conservation.