When a team of UC Davis students packs up its house and travels to Irvine next year for the U.S. Department of Energy's 2015 Solar Decathlon competition, its members will bring not only a desire to win, but also to make zero-net-energy homes more affordable.
After submitting an entry for the first time, UC Davis was one of 20 universities selected in February to compete in the Solar Decathlon. The competition draws students and scientists from universities across the nation — from Yale and Vanderbilt to CalPoly and Sacramento State — to design and build solar-powered homes that are energy efficient and attractive.
Meeting a competition milestone, UC Davis' team, Aggie Sol, submitted 80 percent-complete design documents to the department on Oct. 9. The UC Davis project is designed to be a marketable, sustainable house for farmworkers and other low-income communities. Complete plans for the home are due in January, when construction will begin at UC Davis. In October 2015, the home will be disassembled, packed in pieces and transported to the competition site in Irvine.
The front rendering of the UC Davis students' farmworker housing unit.
“I really want to see solar homes everywhere,” said Aggie Sol team member Payman Alemi, a civil and environmental engineering major. “I want every house to be solar powered, and I want every car to be electric. I want everything to be sustainable, and I think that developing a mass marketable house is a big stepping stone.”
Connecting a campus
In addition to addressing a social and environmental problem, the project also provides unique educational opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students.
It connects students in the fields of engineering, architecture, design, communication and development. They've drawn on the expertise and support of faculty in the colleges of Letters and Sciences, Engineering, and Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. They've also tapped the experience of several energy centers on campus—most located at West Village—including the Institute of Transportation Studies, Energy Efficiency Center, Plug-In Hybrid and Electric Vehicle Research Center, and Center for Water Energy Efficiency.
Looking over the Simplex design.
“I heard about what we were going to do about ZNE housing for low-income families, and that really struck a chord with me, being from a low-income neighborhood,” said team member Alejandro Perez, a civil and environmental engineering major. “I really want to make my own house energy efficient, but it's really costly, and it's not really practical where I'm from. Just being part of that effort to make it more affordable really inspired me to be part of the team.”
And while team Aggie Sol is made of about 20 students, an estimated 200 to 500 students from various disciplines will study the project in the coming months, including students from UC Davis Extension, the continuing education division of UC Davis.
The project students are also working with the UC Davis Graduate School of Management and the Division of Social Sciences to create a business plan for the home.
“We want to use this as a way to showcase the ability for zero net energy to be affordable and to do it with a business model in place to implement change in California,” said faculty adviser Frank Loge, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. “If we don't win the competition and still market it, some of us will feel like this has been a very successful effort.”
Nothing but net
UC Davis has proven itself a national leader in zero-net-energy design. In 2011, it opened West Village, a public-private partnership with West Village Community Partnership LLC and the nation's largest planned zero-net-energy community. This past spring, it debuted the Honda Smart Home, which produces enough renewable energy to power both the home and a Honda Fit electric vehicle in its garage.
Private builders and homeowners worldwide have also taken on the challenge of creating homes that produce as much energy as they consume, and the California Public Utilities Commission has a goal for all new residential homes to be zero net energy by 2020. Yet such residences still tend to fall on the upper financial spectrum of the real est
“As part of our effort at UC Davis, we want to make zero-net-energy housing affordable for everyone,” Loge said. “We're trying to drive down the price point of zero-net-energy housing to help the housing market understand that you can have affordable, nice homes that are zero net energy.”
Big cut in price
Price estimates for most homes that compete in the Decathlon range from $300 to $350 per square foot. Team Aggie Sol intends to cut that price by more than half, to $70 to $150 per square foot.
One way they're doing that is by creating a relatively simple, modular design using prefabricated materials. The Aggie Sol design also addresses the health and living concerns associated with farmworkers' current housing conditions, such as poor air quality, crowding and lack of shade.
The home combines public and private spaces in three linear zones: Two climate-controlled living spaces are separated by an enclosed deck. The zones act as climate buffers that maximize passive cooling in summer and passive heating in winter. It will also feature “smart home” technology that aligns the home's needs with the electrical grid, communicating with the resident and power provider to manage energy systems more effectively.
The team plans to begin building the house in January on the UC Davis campus but has not yet chosen a location. Loge said they intend for the home to be built in a public place.
The Department of Energy provided a $50,000 grant to Aggie Sol, while the team is attempting to raise at least another $700,000 for training, travel, equipment, uniforms and team-building costs.
A UC Davis forum draws in ranchers and drought experts to discuss the U.S. Drought Monitor, along with new climate forecasts and survey insights.
One image has had every Californian cringing this year: the U.S. Drought Monitor
map. Like a slice of molding bread, the drought began in the middle, grew darker and moved outward in concentric rings that gradually devoured the state. The reaction was shock. Yet what does such a large map mean to individual ranching operations? Where does this information come from? And how does it affect research and policy? With forecasts shaping up for yet another drought this fall and winter, serious ramifications may be coming for ranchers.
These concerns and more are being discussed at an upcoming meeting called “Ranching and California's Drought” a public workshop and webinar to be held on the UC Davis campus Nov. 7 and broadcast at local satellite locations throughout the state.
Drought experts from a range of organizations will open the dialogue with ranchers, to discuss the science and the policies of how drought is declared and mapped in California. UC Davis researcher Leslie Roche will present new insights from an extensive study, having surveyed and interviewed ranchers throughout the state. Other topics include new feeding strategies, how ranchers can qualify for drought relief assistance and a seasonal forecast from the state climatologist. The workshop will be a learning opportunity for researchers as well.
“There are impacts of drought on a ranch that these models are blind to or just can't integrate,” says UC Davis Cooperative Extension specialist Ken Tate, one of the meeting organizers. “But these things need to be integrated into policy.”
As an example, he explains how late April showers in northern California gave this year's totals a deceptively positive review: “It may not look like that big of a drought on the annual forage production basis, when in reality it was horrendous in December and January,” he says. “April rain and forage were too late to save the day.”
The forum will allow Drought Monitor experts to better integrate local knowledge into their analysis and decision making, Tate says, adding: “They're really open and really interested in having these conversations.”
After light rain in December and January, a ranch manager uses feed supplements to make up for less forage.
'It is so amazing to see their eyes light up and hear the excitement in their voices when they see the work of their hands.' - Ventura County teacher
This is a real testimonial about the value of a school garden. I received an email recently from a teacher at a school where our University of California Cooperative Extension team installed garden beds this last school year. I have made minimal edits to the email to protect the privacy of the students. The program is the Middle School Opportunity Program at Foothill Technology High School
in Ventura Unified School District. (This is an innovative and targeted program at one of the nation's highest achieving public high schools. Foothill was just ranked by Newsweek magazine in its top 100 public high schools, as #77 among all high schools, and #54 nationwide at effectiveness in serving low-income students).
At the end of a challenging day, I found this in my inbox:
“Our garden continues to thrive! My students love it. They run over to it first thing each morning to check the progress of their plants. Right now we have the last of our tomatoes, the last of the strawberries, bell peppers, snacking peppers, cucumber vines that are flowering, pumpkin vines (we planted those late), radishes, cilantro, chives, corn, and broccoli (something is eating the leaves. Ideas?). I am teaching plant science and it has been so wonderful to use our garden plants for examples. It makes the lessons so much richer.
The kids have asked me if we can install two more planter boxes. I told them I would check with you to see if you have more. If not, we will make them ourselves.
Again, thanks so much for getting us started last year. The addition of our garden has made our program more enjoyable for the students and for me. It is so amazing to see their eyes light up and hear the excitement in their voices when they see the work of their hands actually thriving!”
Over one hundred years ago, Ventura Unified teacher Zilda Rogers also gardened with her students, and also wrote to a University of California staff member about the positive experiences her students were having in their school garden. This important story about the history of school gardens appears in a book I recently published, called “Sowing the Seeds of Victory: American Gardening Programs of World War I.”
History often repeats itself. And sometimes, in good ways. P.S. to one of my favorite teachers, at one of my favorite schools, in one of my favorite school districts: We'll be over ASAP to fulfill your request for two more garden boxes to expand this “growing” enterprise!
“A Garden for Everyone. Everyone in a Garden.”
A sweat bee collects pollen from a California poppy. (Photo: Rollin Coville)
The 1,600 species of wild bees that buzz their way to California gardens and green spaces get hungry, and there's a lot city dwellers and suburbanites can do to create an appealing buffet for the valuable pollinators. California Bees & Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists is a friendly new guidebook that shows readers how to make native bees thrive in an urban environment—and makes the case for why it's important to help them do so.
Home gardeners will want to post the chapter “Urban California's Best Bee Attractors” in their toolsheds for constant reference at planting time. Naturalists and other curious types wanting to identify and learn about the bees already visiting their gardens or communities can browse accessible chapters parsing the huge diversity of species. Educators will find general information useful for lessons for even the youngest of audiences, including who stings and why, where bees sleep at night, and who does the “waggle dance,” a “figure-eight shimmy” used for communication in hives.
An ochraceous chimney bee rests on a bushmallow flower. (Photo: Rollin Coville)
With honeybee populations declining due to colony collapse disorder, the role of wild bees as pollinators is more important than ever — to everyone, not just large-scale farmers. The beautifully illustrated book, including stunning critter close-ups by photographer Rollin E. Coville
, offers a wealth of information. In addition to expansive advice for growing and managing bee-friendly plants, the book even includes a section describing citizen science projects enthusiasts can participate in.
The book project is a University of California-grown collaboration. Co-authors are Gordon Frankie, a UC Berkeley professor of entomology; Robbin W. Thorp, a professor emeritus of entomology at UC Davis; Coville, an insect and spider photographer who received a Ph.D. in entomology from Berkeley; and Barbara Ertter, a curator at the UC Berkeley-based University and Jepson Herbaria.
The book is published by Heyday Books in collaboration with the California Native Plant Society.
Foodie Bees: Insects Head Downtown for Dinner, National Geographic article.
Urban farmer Pilar Rebar gives a UC ANR team a tour of her organic seedling operation in Richmond, Calif.
Urban farms are popping up around the state, and a UC ANR team
recently took a close-up look at urban agriculture in California. In particular, we wanted to learn about farms in cities and on the edges of cities that are selling or distributing their products. We visited urban farms and interviewed farmers to find out about their operations, their challenges, and especially, what UC ANR could offer that would be most helpful. We used what we learned to create the UC ANR Urban Agriculture website
, a portal where California's urban farmers can find information they need on a wide array of topics. Here are a few of the insights we gained on our visits.
California's urban farms are usually small, but not always.
Among the 27 farms we visited, the median size was one acre (in other words, half of the farms were larger than an acre, and half were smaller). And the range in size was wide. The smallest was 3,000 square feet, while the largest was 1,000 acres! Excluding the 1,000-acre farm, the average size was 2.8 acres. Compared to the average size of a farm in California, which is 328 acres, according to the 2012 USDA Census of Agriculture, urban farms are very small.
Some experienced farmers, many beginners
Two farms were multi-generation family farms started in the 1950s by the current farmers' parents or grandparents and these farmers are highly experienced. Although their farms now operate in urban environments, they didn't start out as urban farms. “The city came to us,” as one farmer put it. The other farmers we interviewed have been learning farming from the ground up.
Not-for-profit models are prevalent
Among the urban farms we visited, most are part of a non-profit organization or government agency with a larger mission. Urban farming is used as a vehicle for reaching the organization's goals, for example, teaching business skills to youth, or improving healthy food access in under-served communities.
Many challenges starting up
When asked about challenges in starting up their urban farms, the most common issues farmers mentioned were business and financial planning, marketing, and accessing land. From a business perspective, most urban farmers were still learning how to make their enterprises profitable. They also struggled with production issues such as crop planning, pests, and irrigation. And many had encountered confusing zoning issues and regulations.
Urban farmers dive into policy
Of the 27 urban farmers we interviewed, 19 were also involved in advocating for local policy change to facilitate urban agriculture. As one interviewee said: “In order to start the urban farm, we have had to jump into policy work to get it off the ground.”
How can UC ANR help?
One theme that emerged through our visits and discussions with urban farmers is the need for a ready and reliable source of information on everything from starting a farm to production to local regulations. With experts around the state, UC ANR has access to research and information on a wide variety of farming and related topics. The UC ANR Urban Agriculture website has been created as a resource for urban farmers in California, where we'll continue to add helpful material, urban farm stories from around the state, and updates on policies in our metropolitan areas. We encourage urban farmers and urban agriculture advocates in California to connect. Suggest ideas for our blog, share information and photos about your urban farm, and ask questions, via our Facebook page and Twitter. We look forward to hearing from you!