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OC Register: Here Are the Colleges That Will Compete to Make OC “World’s Sustainability Capital”

OC Register: Here Are the Colleges That Will Compete to Make OC “World’s Sustainability Capital”

May 23, 2022
By Teri Sforza
Katie Schneider uses a trowel as she tapes drywall joints while helping to build a tiny house at Colorado School of Mines on Sept. 23, 2017, in Golden. School of Mines students and faculty are in the process of building a net-zero energy tiny house that will be on display at the 2017 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon in Denver Oct. 5-9 and 12-15.

Orange County was famous for ranching and agriculture, for Disneyland and John Wayne, for aerospace and vast tracts of safe, cookie-cutter housing.

That was yesterday. The organizers of the first Orange County Sustainability Decathlon want to forge a new tomorrow for the O.C., making it synonymous with beautiful, functional, affordable, environmentally groundbreaking building innovations that are fire and drought-resistant, leave no carbon footprint and aim to do no less than help save the planet.

“I want Orange County to be the world sustainability capital. That’s where we’re going. This event is one of the catalysts for making it happen,” said Fred Smoller, a political science professor at Chapman University and the competition’s president and CEO.

On Monday, they announced the 18 teams selected to compete in the inaugural event in the fall of 2023, including Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Northridge, Loyola Marymount, Orange Coast College, UC Irvine, UC Riverside, UC San Diego and UC Santa Cruz, Rancho Cielo Construction Academy in Salinas, as well as universities in Washington state, Arizona, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, the U.K. and China.

Each team will get $100,000 seed money, thanks to a $5 million state grant, then will have to fundraise hundreds of thousands more to build their dream designs. Most of the homes will cost some $200,000 to $400,000.

The “World’s Fair of sustainability” is expected to be held at the Orange County Fair and Events Center in Costa Mesa in October 2023. It aims to capitalize on the fair’s fun vibe, with electric motorcycle races, electric monster trucks, electric car ride-and-drives, drone shows, concerts, a high school sustainability competition and food — plant-based burgers, perhaps.

“We see this kind of like a barn-raising, if you will — the community coming together to solve a common problem,” Smoller said. “The threats facing our planet are appreciated by everyone. We want to bring the best and brightest together at this event to address them.”

Smoller and fellow founders Mike Moodian, another faculty member at Chapman, and Richard King, who created the Solar Decathlon for the U.S. Department of Energy and is competition director, have been stomping up and down the state for years drumming up support for the idea.

The $5 million project was shepherded into the state budget by Sen. Dave Min, D-Irvine.

Seeking transformation

“The reason the state got behind us is that California has the most ambitious goals in the country on climate change — but it’s missing the engagement and public education factor,” Moodian said.

Did you know that, come 2024, you won’t be able to buy a gas-powered lawnmower at California hardware stores? And that, by 2045, the state’s energy sources are to be 100% renewable?

Participants build a deck for a net-zero-energy tiny house in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon in 2017. (Photo by Seth McConnell/The Denver Post)

“The types of transformation we’re expecting to undergo in the next generation are absolutely enormous,” Smoller said. “This isn’t China — you can’t just impose it. If people don’t understand, they’re going to push back.”

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon competitions have ushered innovations to market, including ultra-high-efficient heating and air conditioning units, super-insulated homes, heat pump hot water heaters, triple-pane windows and home control systems. They’ve accelerated the public’s embrace of advanced technologies and given students hands-on training that prepares them to enter the clean energy workforce.

The same can happen here.

“Over the next year-and-a-half we will be designing, building, and testing a 1,200-square foot Accessory Dwelling Unit (ADU) that is carbon-neutral, resilient, affordable, water- and energy-efficient, and of course attractive and comfortable,” says the website for Team M.A.D.E.-OC — “Modular Affordable Dwellings for the Environment” — which pairs up Orange Coast College and UCI’s School of Engineering.

Casa Del Sol – created by UCI, Chapman University, Irvine Valley and Saddleback colleges – placed second in engineering and ninth overall in the 2015 Solar Decathlon. (US Department of Energy)

“Approximately 15 student teams will bring their houses to the OC Fairgrounds in October of 2023 and will be judged in 10 categories related to sustainability, design, efficiency, comfort, and communications/marketing,” it said.

UCI/OCC project lead Jennifer Wilkens said Team M.A.D.E.-OC is in the early stages of recruiting students and faculty mentors, and beginning schematic design. The project will build community, develop a product that provides sustainable and affordable housing stock, and will help students learn, she said.

Charting the future

The founders worked to involve more than just the state’s four-year universities, making their pitch to vocational schools and community colleges as well. In the end, dozens of teams threw their hats into the ring, and a review committee whittled it down to the 18 teams well-positioned to bring their visions to fruition, King said.

The Rancho Cielo Construction Academy, for example, is for youngsters aged 16 to 24 who didn’t earn a traditional high school diploma and have histories of gang involvement, truancy, homelessness and foster care.

The 2017 Solar Decathlon in Denver.

Competing teams from beyond California come from Brigham Young University in Utah, Central Washington University in Ellensburg, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, the Virginia Tech School of Architecture + Design in Blacksburg, the University of Arizona in Tucson, Tongji University in Shanghai and the University of East London, Tsinghua Shenzhen International Graduate School in Shenzhen and Zhejiang Normal University in Jinhua, China (teaming up with UCSD).

“No state has as much influence over policy and culture as California. You change Southern California, that changes the state, and that becomes the model for the world,” Smoller said.

“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the next chapter of Orange County’s economic history is sustainability? When I wake up with glee in the middle of the night, it’s envisioning a sign that says, ‘Orange County, Sustainability Capital of the World.’ That creates jobs, enhances the tax base, is good for education and for the planet.

The 2017 Solar Decathlon in Denver.

“We can live a sustainable life,” Smoller said, “without a decline in our quality of life.”

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