Portion of CMU's Geothermal Design Challenge infographic. Courtesy of CMU.

As the push to switch from non-renewable to renewable energy sources grows more dire, organizations are trying to find ways to effectively communicate that need to the public. Three sophomore students from Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Design, Marisa Lu, Tiffany Lai and Susie Lee, demonstrated how to do that successfully by winning the grand prize in the 2016 Geothermal Design Challenge.

Sponsored by the US Department of Energy Geothermal Technologies Office in partnership with the Center for Advanced Energy Studies (CAES) and the Idaho National Laboratory, the competition challenged more than 100 high school and college teams from all over the country to create an infographic using visual storytelling to illustrate the future of geothermal energy. The projects were also required to show how geothermal energy is cleaner, safer and more reliable than conventional energy sources such as coal and nuclear.

The CMU team, named Infinity and Below, was chosen as the winner by a committee of engineers, energy experts and creative professionals.

Lai believes their choice to compare geothermal energy to other energy sources in their infographic may have given them the edge over the other teams. Their approach included different levels, with the bottom of the infographic depicting geothermal energy’s origins deep in the Earth’s core. There they presented information showing the benefits of geothermal energy and the downsides of conventional energy sources. Above that, a line graph comparing the cost of different energy sources to that of geothermal energy creates an illustration of a mountain range.

“We wanted to create a landscape, but not sacrifice aesthetics for information, so we compromised and made the mountain range into a graph,” says Lai.

They also used two light bulb-shaped pie charts, one an incandescent bulb showing our dependence on nuclear and coal, and one energy-efficient bulb symbolizing “the hope for an energy-efficient future.”

The members of Infinity and Below saw the competition as a way to integrate their interest in environmental issues into their design work. Both Lai and Lee served as leaders of their respective high school environment clubs. Lu led her high school environment club and got involved with environmental advocacy groups in her home state of Maryland, including Environment Maryland and Maryland PIRG. She also explores these issues in her personal projects, including a graphic fantasy novel about how mermaids would deal with current marine pollution.

“My father is a nuclear engineer, so what’s been happening on the energy scene for America is always at least peripherally in mind,” says Lu. “Naturally when I heard about this competition, I jumped on the opportunity to combine my personal passions, past experiences and professional aspirations.”

Lu hopes the project encourages people to think about the future of energy, and see geothermal as a sustainable alternative that provides multiple benefits.

“An ideal future energy scape would be one that cultivates good environmental stewardship, creates thousands of new jobs, and revitalizes the economy while providing cheap, American grown energy that we can trust to be clean and available for many generations to come,” says Lu. “I am happy to have been able to contribute a little step towards that goal.”

Infinity and Below received a prize of $2,500 and will travel to the Geothermal Resource Council’s 40th annual meeting taking place from October 23 through October 26 in Sacramento, CA.

The team’s full infographic is available to view at the CAES website.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated...