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Green housing innovators will descend on Orange County for sustainability competition

Green housing innovators will descend on Orange County for sustainability competition

June 9, 2021
By Teri Sforza

Recycled building materials? Solar power? Or perhaps something more exotic?

A $5 million grant from the state will bring a California Sustainability Decathlon to Orange County, aiming to “motivate and empower California’s best and brightest to lead the state’s transition to 100% renewables.”

Modeled after the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon — which Orange County has hosted — the new Sustainability Decathlon will inspire teams of researchers, architects, builders and innovators to design and construct the next generation of environmentally friendly homes.

“The winners of the competition will need to blend affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence with optimal renewable energy production, sustainability and efficiency,” says the proposal for the competition. “Everyone wins.”

The project was shepherded into the state budget by Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine, and the grant goes to Fred Smoller and Mike Moodian, both professors at Chapman University, along with Richard King, who created the Solar Decathlon for the DOE. The event will be held in Orange County in 2023.

The teams selected to compete will get $100,000 each to help their designs succeed. King, who will be directing and officiating the competition, is elated.

“Today is an extraordinary time in our lives,” he said by email. “Last year, everything came to a standstill. Nothing seems the same now. Call it a readjustment. A pivot. Whatever. I think most will agree the future is a new frontier. The (decathlon) challenges a new generation to charge ahead and be successful. I haven’t been this excited in a long time. … I will work hard to make (it) the greatest design and build competition ever held.”

Chapman University professors Mike Moodian, left, and Fred Smoller. (File photos) These competitions have helped usher innovations to market, including ultra-highefficient heating and air conditioning units, super-insulated homes, heat pump hot water heaters, triple-pane windows and home control systems, Smoller said. They also accelerate the public’s embrace of such technologies, with visitors who toured competition houses saying they were far more likely to buy energy-efficient lighting and appliances and understand how to make their homes greener.

Additionally, participating students are provided with unique training that prepares them to enter the clean energy workforce.

The competition’s goal is to create designs that can be easily replicated statewide. This has long been a passion of Smoller’s, and his goal is to make Orange County the sustainability capital of the world.

“The same way Silicon Valley is known for computers, I want Orange County to be known for sustainability,” Smoller said. “What made Orange County’s economy strong is how it evolved from ranching to agriculture to defense to biotech to high tech — this is just an additional chapter. This is going to bring jobs.”

Business community elated

The business community is enthusiastic, too.

“This is great. A blast from the past comes forward to the future,” said Lucy Dunn, president and CEO of the Orange County Business Council, which championed the Solar Decathlon in years past. “So happy our legislators are bringing back funding to

O.C., too!  We have been a donor county for decades.”

Interior of the Team O.C. house at the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015 at the Orange County Great Park, Irvine. (Credit: Thomas Kelsey/U.S.

Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Conyers Davis, global director of the USC Schwarzenegger Institute for State and Global Policy, is pleased as well.

“Governor Schwarzenegger was an early supporter of the Orange County

Sustainability Decathlon concept and is pleased to see that the State of California has decided to invest in the idea,” he said by email. “Innovation is at the heart of California’s green tech success and competitions like this will help ensure a cleaner energy future and the state’s long-term leadership in the sustainability field.”

Moodian envisions the event as a world’s fair of sustainability. In addition to the major collegiate competition, it will also have an “expo” component where clean-technology companies can feature their latest and greatest products, he said. Given the county’s first-rate universities and innovative business sector, there’s no reason O.C. shouldn’t be the sustainability capital of the world.

“It is time to move beyond the fossil age,” King said. “The opportunity to make

California the leader in sustainable housing is a challenge I am honored to undertake.”

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