The Loma Prietan - July/August 2010

Today: Cell Phones; Tomorrow: Solar Cells

by Michael Honda and Michael Engh

The 100% solar-powered Refract House at Santa Clara University is part of the University’s commitment to studying and teaching climate neutrality and its work towards the "democratization of energy." Photo: Office of Representative Honda
The 100% solar-powered Refract House at Santa Clara University is part of the University’s commitment to studying and teaching climate neutrality and its work towards the "democratization of energy." Photo: Office of Representative Honda

The 100% solar-powered Refract House at Santa Clara University is part of the University's commitment to studying and teaching climate neutrality and its work towards the "democratization of energy."

developing world, thanks to ratcheting down cost and ratcheting up availability; we could do the same thing here with green-tech and energy- saving devices. We need to make renewable technologies affordable and accessible. The mobile phone has contributed much to the developing world, serving as a critical lifeline to banking, agriculture, trade and commerce activities. Think of what portable and affordable devices capable of capturing renewable energy could offer to poor and underdeveloped villages...and to us. The potential is vast; the need is great.

Colleges and universities must lead the way in creating alternative energy solutions. Through education, innovation, and entrepreneurship, we need to change energy infrastructure and markets radically. We need to put energy supply not in the hands of a few utilities, but in the hands of individual households and institutions. We need the democratization of energy.

Santa Clara University (SCU) has made sustainability and climate neutrality top priorities. Installing solar panels, purchasing wind energy, upgrading heating and air conditioning systems, and retrofitting buildings to improve efficiency all exemplify the University's serious commitment. In 19 academic departments SCU offers more than 40 courses that focus on or relate to sustainability. Hands-on learning opportunities also abound, including student-led projects in the design and construction of two fully operational 100% solar-powered homes. One of these, the award-winning Refract House, will serve as a research and educational tool demonstrating how families can live easily and comfortably in a solar-powered home, while selling excess power back to the grid.

Consider how centralized our energy system is. Most residents must buy their power from one of just a few giant providers. The California electricity crisis a decade ago laid bare multiple weaknesses in this centralized energy industry: regulation inadequacies, market power abuses, insufficient electricity and natural gas capacity, and a general failure to look out for the public's interest. This is the opposite of the democratization of energy.

Much has changed in California since the energy crisis, including the call for sustainability by SCU and other large consumers of power, and the increasing capacity of individuals not only to generate but also to sell renewable energy. Many California homes now have solar panels that generate enough power, leaving the resident with little or no monthly electricity bill. Innovation and entrepreneurship are still critical in the democratization of energy, however. California and SCU's Refract House demonstrate how America can take the lead in using technology ... but we must lower the market price for household-sized renewable energy. Presently, many low- and medium-income communities are priced out of the market for new technologies: Refract House cost SCU nearly $500,000 for labor and materials. But with sound technologies, companies designing residential solar panels, wind turbines, and geothermal, biomass, or other energy-producing devices, can amass majority market share by scaling up, lowering costs, and then going global.

Silicon Valley is already driving fast and furious toward this goal. Institutions like SCU can participate in the Valley's fast-growing interest in sustainability and green energy, just as they have done with Refract House. By leveraging higher education with technology, partnerships between institutions and corporations have the potential to help the underserved. Invention, innovation, and entrepreneurship are key.

Michael Honda is the Congressional representative for the 15th District (Cupertino, Milpitas, Santa Clara, Campbell, Los Gatos, Gilroy, and part of San Jose); he is a member of the House Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition. Michael Engh is president of Santa Clara University.