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DOE selects Stanford solar team



(SERENITY NGUYEN/The Stanford Daily)

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) selected a Stanford team last week as one of 20 collegiate teams set to compete in the biennial Solar Decathlon competition.


The Decathlon, hosted by the DOE, offers participating teams $100,000 in seed money to design, build and operate solar-powered homes with a zero net energy footprint. The Stanford team will have two years to build its home, which the team will assemble in Orange County in 2013 for a DOE panel to assess.


Stanford progressed through a selection process that pitted the team against around 40 different universities from both the U.S. and abroad. Each university submitted a 30-page proposal that outlined the team’s concept, organization, fundraising and scheduling. The Stanford team submitted its proposal in November and received word of the application’s success last Wednesday.


Derek Ouyang ‘13, co-founder of the Stanford Solar Decathlon team, noted that the Stanford team faces an inherent disadvantage in numbers due to the University’s small undergraduate population relative to competing engineering-focused schools. While typical Decathlon teams number in the hundreds, Ouyang currently expects a committed Stanford team of around 40 students.


“We expect that our team will be composed of about 25 percent graduate students, 75 percent undergraduate [students],” said Taylor Brady ‘13, co-founder of the Stanford team, in an email to The Daily. Brady said most of these students will be from the School of Engineering, but the team will also include “a fair portion” of students studying business, economics and marketing, as well.


Brady added that he anticipates the team splitting up into smaller groups, each focusing on an aspect of the house’s design and construction and meeting multiple times each week. The team has already begun to plan and design the house, a stage that is scheduled to continue into winter quarter of 2013. Construction will take place on campus during spring quarter of the same academic year, before the Sept. 2013 competition.


The team has received assistance from faculty from a variety of departments and is currently looking to develop partnerships with the Graduate School of Business (GSB) for marketing support and with the School of Engineering for facilities and funds. Both University President John Hennessy and Dean of Engineering Jim Plummer wrote letters of support for the team during the selection process.


Richard King, director and founder of the Solar Decathlon, noted that the overall cost of competing for teams could rise to multiples of the DOE seed money. Teams are expected to independently raise funding for the design, construction and transportation to the testing site.


“It’s almost a small business endeavor,” King said. “Not only are you designing the house and organizing a team, but you’re raising the funds and reaching out to corporations and other entities for support.”


The Stanford team has already identified potential financial, material and mentoring partnerships with large firms such as General Electric (GE) and Facebook.


Ouyang added that the team intends to develop partnerships with Silicon Valley companies and local construction firms as well as solar panel manufacturers. Ouyang emphasized that the University’s close ties with California firms may help provide a competitive advantage. The house will, however, be constructed entirely by students.


The Decathlon assesses competing teams’ houses through 10 equally weighted categories, with the highest cumulative score determining the competition winner. Grading categories include market appeal, feasibility, concept presentation and performance. The latter is assessed by having six team members live in the house and perform tasks, such as cooking or watching television, over a 10-day period while only using solar energy.


The DOE has credited the competition with workforce development in the energy sector as well as educating the public. King noted that teams’ concepts and blueprints are made available to the general public and have in the past sparked interest from the private sector, with some teams from previous years going on to form successful companies in the energy sector.


Brady and Ouyang noted that the project’s future after the Decathlon will depend largely on public reception and competitive success, but they envision potentially returning the house to campus to serve educational, residential and research functions. Past competitors have toured their projects for educational and commercial outreach or sold or donated their houses to homeowners and museums.


Brady noted that the principles developed and utilized in the house’s construction represent the future of the building industry. He highlighted the opportunity for innovation and social impact provided by participation in the Decathlon.


“Stanford is in a great position to excel at this competition, being at the heart of Silicon Valley and an innovator in green technology,” wrote Ouyang in an email to The Daily. “We’ve built solar cars before; it’s about time we built a solar home.”

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Marshall Watkins is a senior staff writer at The Stanford Daily, having previously worked as the paper's executive editor and as the managing editor of news. Marshall is a junior from London majoring in Economics, and can be reached at mtwatkins "at" stanford "dot" edu.