Solar Decathlon project battles low student interest

Ten months ago, Derek Ouyang ’13, co-founder of Stanford Solar Decathlon, said, “We’ve built solar cars before; it’s about time we built a solar home.”

Today, his project’s design is 80 percent complete and Ouyang has a lot more to say about what may be “the biggest project on campus.”

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon challenges 20 colleges around the world to design, build and operate solar-powered houses.

The Stanford group, chosen out of a pool of 40 applicants, had its vision take shape after it became clear that the “major vision” of Stanford’s solar house would be a huge metal box called The Core.

“The Core, as an industry statement, houses the most complicated systems of the house,” Ouyang said

This includes the house’s water, electricity and ventilation systems. The Core would be assembled in a factory through a streamlined process that uses the best materials, the best technology and reduced labor costs.

“Instead of building it on site, which is basically how things are done nowadays, you’ll be able to purchase this online from a specialized company and it is shipped to you. You can build your dream house around it,” Ouyang said.

More than just a competition, Ouyang sees the Solar Decathlon as an opportunity for change.

“We wanted to build not just one showcase house. We wanted to develop and communicate an idea that lives on,” he said. “When people walk through our house, we want them to see not just that one house, but to see an idea.”

And, judging from the reaction of the team’s “industry mentors,” that is precisely what is happening.

“Companies and groups both from Silicon Valley and the construction industries get really excited about this. It’s a new idea, and they want to engage with the University,” said Rob Best, an engineering graduate student and the project design manager.

For the business management team, overseen by Emma Sagan ’14, the hope is that enthusiasm translates to donations.

“Funding is always a challenge with a project like this,” Sagan said. “The grant from the Department of Energy we have received is just one-tenth of the total project budget, and so we’re actively working on getting funds.”

The Department of Energy grant is $100,000, while the cost of the house is estimated to ring in at more than a $1 million.

Stanford also must overcome the fact that their team is smaller than many other teams competing in the project, and the fact that many Stanford students don’t realize the project is even taking place.

Recently, outreach efforts to get students to like the project’s Facebook page – offering free Ike’s sandwiches for Facebook likes – did not go as planned.

“Part of the competition looks at communication, and the easiest metric they have is the number of ‘likes’ you have on your Facebook page. So it’s important to us,” Sagan said. “[The lack of 'likes'] sort of surprises me.”

To get the word out, Sagan has been working with other campus groups and is trying to keep up a presence online.

“We’ve been trying other stuff, like going to related classes, keeping up the project blog and trying to join with other sustainability groups to raise awareness,” she said.

It is also Stanford’s first year participating in the Solar Decathlon, which means that a significant effort has to go toward explaining the essence of the project to students who have never heard about it before.

“We have about 50 students who work regularly on the project. Our emails go out to around 200 students on campus, and everybody that I talk to gets really excited about it,” Best said. “Even if they don’t directly participate in it, they think it’s a really cool project.”

Ouyang explained he is not very worried about what some perceive as apathy toward the project. The solar house is right on schedule and the team is expected to start building soon.

“I’m not worried about [lack of student interest]” Ouyang said. “When people come back from spring break, they’ll see a house going up on campus, and I think that’s not something you can’t be excited about.”

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