In February 2014, UC Davis was chosen by the Department of Energy to build a solar-powered home to compete in a Solar Decathlon in UC Irvine during October 2015.
UC Davis was chosen as one of the 20 universities to compete in the competition. The competition is also featuring other top research universities such as Stanford, Yale and nearby rival school, Sacramento State.
“We don’t know exactly how the Department of Energy made its final selections. They have a very rigorous proposal process,” said Frank Loge, principal investigator for the team and a professor in the Department of Environmental and Civil Engineering. “We … pulled in a remarkable team of interested students and faculty from across many disciplines at UC Davis to prepare a proposal … and we told an interesting story while we did it.”
Although the team was confident, they were as surprised as anyone when they heard the news. Loge even admitted that the team got started late in the proposal process. The team was able to successfully convey its research in the proposal with examples of zero-net energy usefulness.
“I believe we were selected … on the merits of the proposal, which has a clear audience and need. While most energy-efficient housing is aimed at high or mid-market, ours is aimed at those that need it the most,” said Brett Synder, an assistant professor in the Department of Design.
The Department of Design was instrumental in putting together the design proposal. They had several meetings that brought together people across the University from landscape architecture, social sciences, engineering and transportation.
“The University is obviously a big part of our efforts. We will run much of our operations through the Energy Efficiency Center innovation hub in the West Village, and look forward to interacting with campus communications and development staff especially to help make this a win that all of UC Davis can be proud of,” Loge said. “Obviously, the biggest resource is our student body, and for now, it’s a wealth of talent — we’re still putting together the structures we need to harness all that excellence and enthusiasm and put it to good use.”
The project generated a lot of interest on campus. Currently the team is looking for the most motivated students that will bring their skills, background and curiosity to the table for a true collaborative experience.
“Because this is such a complex project, we’re expecting faculty to choose the students they feel best suited to their specialties,” Loge said. “That process is ongoing.”
Faculty will start incorporating class projects within courses to contribute. Some engineering classes can require students to work on the project.
“There are three ways students can participate. For instance, there could be some engineering classes which require student[s] to choose between an array of options to contribute to the project. Second, there can be an internship for course credit of three to four units; third, students can be involved with certain elements of the team. They can volunteer, fundraise and help put up a SmartSite together and a listserv [for] communication within the team,” said Ben Finkelor, executive director of the Energy Efficiency Center.
Daniel Sperling, interim director of the UC Davis Energy Institute, believes the solar project will fight societal challenges such as climate change and energy efficiency.
“Solar energy replaces fossil energy (natural gas, petroleum, coal) and thus largely eliminates emissions of greenhouse gases,” Sperling said. “For example, West Village itself is already nearly zero-net energy. State laws require it for future buildings. All it requires is better efficiency and more use of renewable energy which is clean, non-polluting and good for the environment.”
The project will result in a working prototype house that will find a permanent home on campus, and be accepted in the larger marketplace. Since the home must be shipped to Irvine, it must be put into containers and reassembled.
“Our initial concept was to ship the house in parts through containers as a starting point. We will reconstruct the home in Irvine using rails, and this laborious process will involve using storage containers, barges and rail cars, but it is structurally sound,” Finkelor said.
The team also looks at this as an opportunity to showcase how great UC Davis is as a school.
“We battle societal challenges. We may not get recognition because we are not an athletic powerhouse like Stanford or UCLA. However, we solve world problems with our agricultural school. We are doing big things like figuring out how to address climate change. Every student should feel like this is the opportunity to get engaged,” Finkelor said.
The team has communicated with some local and regional housing providers, and they have expressed a keen interest in what we’re hoping to accomplish. Statewide, there is a target for 100 percent of new homes to be zero energy efficient by 2020.
“We look forward to bringing those goals into reality using technologies and techniques that hold a modular home to a tight price point,” Loge said. “Succeeding will make it harder for anyone to complain that it can’t be done.”