Here comes the sun … and our solar decathletes

The 2013 Solar Decathlon is on, and Santa Clara is in it to win. It’s the third time a team from SCU is in the thick of it, after 3rd place wins in 2007 and 2009. Read about those stellar achievements in the Spring ’08 and Spring ’10 issues of Santa Clara Magazine.

It’s official: A team from Santa Clara University will compete in the 2013 Solar Decathlon, against 19 other teams from around the world as they determine who is the best designer and builder of a net-zero energy house on the planet. The announcement came on Jan. 26 from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Santa Clara’s undergraduate engineering students will be up against some tough competition, including 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. After all, they’re the third team from Santa Clara to compete.

“We’ve been putting in countless hours studying, researching, and developing our concept,” says Jake Gallau ’13, student project manager for the 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.”

Indeed, SCU’s 2007 Solar Decathlon team stunned other schools and enchanted fans of the Solar Decathlon with a Cinderella story of sorts: They weren’t even supposed to be in the competition, but then after a late start, they garnered third place overall. An intrepid band of engineers from Santa Clara also won third place in 2009, after finishing in the top three in seven of the ten contests of the decathlon. Read the epic stories of the 2007 team (“Let the sun shine in“) and the 2009 team (“Bending light“).



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 Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Tim Hight points out, winning the Solar Decathlon isn’t the most important goal for Santa Clara University.

“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 important, though, it gives the general public and the community a chance to learn about eco-friendly living.”



SCU team leader Gallau doesn’t want to reveal too much about what the team’s plans are for its solar house. But he does acknowledge that, as a matter of course, SCU’s team will take everything they learned from previous 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.”

Students will collaborate with the undergraduate architecture program at sister Jesuit school University of San Francisco.

For the next few months, students will finalize plans for the project and begin fundraising. More detailed design and analysis happens this summer. Construction of the house will begin in spring 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.

Southern California is a change of scenery for the Solar Decathlon. Since 2002, it’s been held on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. For the 2013 Solar Decathlon, though, the Department of Energy sought a new venue to promote the outreach, education, and economic benefits of energy security, renewable energy, and energy efficiency. It’s a fitting change of scenery for a competition that will feature four of California’s top universities.

The full list of universities and colleges that will compete in the 2013 Solar Decathlon is available here.

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