Santa Clara University

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Solar Energy: A Tool for Social Justice

Student and faculty members of the SCU Solar Decathlon team
From left: Senior James Bickford, the Solar Decathlon team’s chief project manager; Associate Professor Tim Hight, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering and a faculty advisor to the Decathlon team; junior Meghan Mooney, communications coordinator; and Professor Jorge Gonzalez, a faculty advisor and David Packard Scholar, mechanical engineering department.

Senior mechanical engineering student James Bickford and the entire cohort of students working together to build a fully functioning solar house considered it an honor to have made the cut as one of only 20 schools chosen to compete in the Department of Energy’s international Solar Decathlon. But they won’t rest on the laurels of their impressive third-place finish in the October competition, behind Germany’s Technische Universitat Darmstadt and the University of Maryland, yet ahead of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon University, Cornell University, and the other 14 entrants. Using the knowledge they’ve gleaned from their hard work, they plan to make the world more humane, sustainable, and just.

Aided by generous donations of money, expertise, and material from dozens of clean-tech and green industry sponsors, approximately 200 students from a variety of majors had a hand in designing and building the state-of-the-art, 650-square-foot home from scratch. All the appliances and features run solely on solar power. The home includes innovations such as bamboo I-beams, photovoltaic and solar thermal panels, and Smart Windows that maximize natural light and minimize unfavorable heat transfer.

Project manager Bickford views solar energy as an important tool in social justice. “If you could produce enough clean, renewable energy, and you could do so cheaply, you would dramatically lower poverty,” he says, “because energy essentially allows you to do anything. You can desalinate ocean water. You can pump it into the Sahara. You can fertilize the land. You can grow crops.”

His countless hours on the project have given him invaluable technical and managerial skills. Although he has no definitive plans yet for after graduation, he says, “I know I can go into alternative energy and be excited, be interested, be challenged, and also feel like I’m part of something bigger and doing something good.”

A Bridge between Sustainable Technology and the Average Consumer

Engineering students weren’t the only ones who gained real-world experience through the year-and-a-half-long project. “It has helped us close that gap between our academics and the world, too,” says junior anthropology major Meghan Mooney.

As an anthropology major, she has been studying human culture. As the communications coordinator for the team, she translated information about the engineering technologies being used into something that the average person can understand. “I’m really the bridge between the culture of technology and the culture of sustainability, and the culture of average consumers—I find it relates really well to anthropology,” she says. The team placed second in the communication category of the decathlon.

Her role has convinced her to become an applied anthropologist. “This is exactly what I want to do with my life: using anthropological knowledge and what I’ve learned at Santa Clara and applying it to working towards solutions for the real world.”