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U.S. Department of Energy Selects Santa Clara University to Compete in 2013 Solar Decathlon

The 2013 Santa Clara Solar Decathlon website is now live. Check it out here.

Santa Clara University hopes the third time will be the charm in one of the world’s most prestigious competitions that determines the best designer and builder of a net-zero energy house. Read our other blog post about the Solar Decathlon coming to Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California. Oct. 3–13, 2013.

The U.S. Department of Energy announced Thursday that Santa Clara University will compete in the 2013 Solar Decathlon, joining 19 other teams of universities and colleges from around the world. Santa Clara’s undergraduate engineering students will go up against some tough schools, such as Stanford, University of Southern California, and California Institute of Technology. They will also face mostly graduate students, many of whom have professional experience. SCU students, who are 19 to 22 years old, aren’t intimidated, though. “We’ve been putting in countless hours studying, researching, and developing our concept,” says Jake Gallau ’13, student project manager for Santa Clara University’s Solar Decathlon team. “We’re confident in our design and the technology we plan to use, and we’re hoping to shock the competition in 2013, just as our alumni have done in previous years.” Gallau is referring to SCU’s 2007 team, which surprised its opponents when it won third place after a late start in the competition. The university also won third place in 2009, after finishing in the top three in seven of the ten contests of the decathlon.

Judges score each team in architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications, affordability, comfort zone, hot water, appliances, home entertainment, and energy balance. The team with the highest overall score wins, but as faculty project manager and Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Tim Hight points out, winning the Solar Decathlon isn’t the most important goal for Santa Clara University.

Santa Clara University Solar Decathlon 2013 - Leaders

“We compete in the Solar Decathlon, because it gives students hands-on experience in learning about the mechanics and technology of solar panels, radiant heating/cooling, and solar thermal collectors. It also teaches them how to manage and lead a large project,” says Hight. “Most importantly, though, it gives the general public and the community a chance to learn about eco-friendly living.”

Gallau doesn’t want to reveal too much about what the team’s plans are for its solar house but he said the members would take everything they learned from the previous Solar Decathlons to knock out the competition.

“We’ve accumulated a significant body of knowledge about what works and what doesn’t,” says Gallau. “For example, we have found bamboo to be an excellent structural solution and intend to greatly expand the use of this highly adaptive and sustainable material in our new house.”

To assist Santa Clara University with the architectural design of the home, the students will work with University of San Francisco’s undergraduate architecture program.
The students will finalize their plans and begin fundraising for the remainder of the academic year. Then, they will begin more detailed design and analysis this summer. Construction of the house will begin in the spring of 2013. Once the home is finished in the fall, the students will dismantle it, and truck it to Orange County Great Park in Irvine, Calif., where the students will have to rebuild it, operate it, and prove that it’s a functional, energy-efficient, affordable home.

Since 2002, the Solar Decathlon has been held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. For the 2013 Solar Decathlon, though, the DOE sought a new venue to promote the outreach, education, and economic benefits of energy security, renewable energy, and energy efficiency.

California weighs innovative community solar bill

Rooftop solar power is growing like crazy in California. But there’s a big problem: About 44 percent of California residents are renters, not homeowners. That means that nearly half the residents of the state can’t purchase solar-generated electricity even if they want to.

California weighs innovative community solar billNow the solar industry, utilities, environmentalists, financiers and legislative staffers in Sacramento are hashing out an innovative but controversial Senate bill that would allow people to join forces and collectively “buy” solar power from a shared facility.

The bill covers other forms of renewable energy, including wind, biomass, geothermal, and small hydropower. But solar panels, which have seen a dramatic drop in price in recent years, are expected to make up the lion’s share of new projects. Senate Bill 843 aims to bring an additional 2 gigawatts of renewable energy online within the territories of the state’s three largest utilities: PG&E, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric. Two gigawatts is nothing to sneeze at: One gigawatt is roughly the output of two coal-fired power plants and is enough energy to power 750,000 homes.

The bill would allow customers of the three utilities to “buy” renewable energy from, say, a solar array on the roof of a church, in the field of the local high school or at City Hall.

Customers would sign contracts with the developers of the solar projects and pay a monthly fee for the energy they buy. In exchange, they would become “subscribers” of the project and receive a credit for their portion of the energy produced on their monthly utility bill.

Democrat Lois Wolk, whose 5th Senate District includes the city of Davis, is sponsoring the bill, which is winding its way through the Legislature. The concept is of great interest to Gov. Jerry Brown, who has made expanding access to “distributed generation” solar projects in urban areas a key platform of his energy agenda. The Assembly Appropriations Committee is scheduled to hold a hearing on the bill Aug. 16.

California weighs innovative community solar bill

SB 843 (Wolk) Community Based Self Generation Structure

“This is the next step in terms of making solar available to the largest number of people possible, including small businesses who lease their buildings, renters and people who live in apartments,” Wolk said in an interview. “In a collective and cooperative way, it allows people to take advantage of economies of scale.”

But the state’s three large utilities, as well as staff at the California Public Utilities Commission, have expressed reservations about the bill and are suggesting several amendments. One of the chief concerns is that utility customers who don’t participate in the proposed program will effectively be subsidizing those who do because of the additional costs associated with bringing more renewables onto the electric grid.

Utilities are already under enormous pressure to buy 33 percent of their electricity from renewable sources by 2020, but the 2 gigawatts resulting from the bill would not count toward that goal. The three large utilities argue that the proposed program should apply to all utilities in the state, including municipal utilities in cities like Alameda, Palo Alto and Santa Clara. And some warn that the bill is far too complex and would be a nightmare for state regulators to fairly administer.

Southern California Edison is firmly opposed to the bill. San Diego Gas & Electric generally support it but have proposed amendments. PG&E and a legislative committee of the CPUC both oppose the bill unless it is amended. A lot of negotiating is going on.

“PG&E strongly supports renewable energy, as well as additional renewable energy options for our customers,” said David Rubin, director of service analysis at PG&E. “However, our key concern with this bill is that it creates a significant additional procurement obligation — at prices that exceed the value we are getting on behalf of all of our customers.”

Among those actively lobbying on behalf of the bill is California Interfaith Power and Light, a coalition of religious groups responding to global warming through the promotion of energy conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy. The group has 560 member congregations throughout the state.

“Many members of our congregations want renewable energy because it’s the moral thing to do,” said Rev. Sally Bingham, an Episcopal priest in San Francisco and the organization’s founder. “It would be great to have a huge solar array on a big mega church, and then allow all of the members of the church to access that energy from the sun.”

Tom Price, director of policy for CleanPath Ventures, a San Francisco-based renewable energy fund, has spent months promoting the bill because he wants to broaden access to solar. His interest was sparked when he was renting an apartment in San Francisco but couldn’t install solar panels because his landlord didn’t want them.

“The problem with solar is that you have to be a rich homeowner with excellent credit and a lot of equity in your home,” said Price, who currently rents a home in Berkeley that does not have solar panels. “You also have to have a roof that faces south and isn’t shaded by trees. The vast majority of Californians don’t fall into this category. It’s a monstrous market failure.”

California, where just 55 percent of residents own their homes, has one of the lowest homeownership rates in the country, according to 2011 data from the U.S. Census Bureau. Nationally, the homeownership rate is 66.1 percent.

Even some homeowners have been frustrated by road blocks to solar. David Ginsborg, a deputy to Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone, owns a townhouse in a 12-unit complex in the Willow Glen neighborhood of San Jose. Ginsborg serves on the board of his homeowners association and looked into putting solar panels on the roof of the buildings, with the idea that the homeowners association would incur the debt. But solar installers basically told him that it couldn’t be done because of legal and logistical hurdles around metering and billing for a system on a shared roof.

“I was surprised and disappointed,” he said. “Why shouldn’t a homeowners association go solar? If we wanted to pave the street or build a swimming pool, we can incur debt for that. But we can’t go solar. It’s outrageous when you think of it. There are 80,000 condominiums and townhouses in Santa Clara County — that’s 25 percent of all homeowners.”

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