Incubators for alternative energy solutions

Colleges and universities must lead the way in creating alternative energy solutions. Through education, innovation, and entrepreneurship, we need to radically change energy infrastructure and markets. We need to put energy supply not in the hands of a few utilities, but in the hands of individual households and institutions. This is the democratization of energy.
As an example, Santa Clara University in the Silicon Valley has made sustainability and climate neutrality top priorities. Drawing on their intellectual heritage as a Jesuit, Catholic institution, it is well on its way to strategically linking its long commitment to environmental justice to its growing efforts at ensuring a sustainable future for all.
SCU is reaching its goals by installing solar panels, purchasing wind energy, upgrading HVAC systems, and retrofitting buildings to improve efficiency – all efforts that 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 homes that are 100 percent solar-powered.
One of the homes is the award-winning Refract House. It will serve as a research and educational tool demonstrating how families can live easily and comfortably in a solar-powered home, while generating enough power to meet, or even exceed, household needs. Families would be able to sell excess power back to the grid.
Energy self-sufficiency is hardly feasible in most parts of the United States. Consider how centralized our energy system is. Most residents have limited options when it comes to energy supply. The California electricity crisis a decade ago laid bare multiple weaknesses in our centralized energy industry: regulation inadequacies, market power abuses, insufficient electricity and natural gas capacity, and the general failure to look out for the public’s interest.
Thankfully, much has changed in California since the energy crisis, including the call for sustainability by SCU, along with other large consumers of power, and the increasing capacity of individuals to not only generate but also sell renewable energy. Many California homes, for example, are now topped with solar panels that generate enough power to offset the consumer’s monthly electric bill, leaving the user with little-to-no monthly electricity fees.
Innovation and entrepreneurship are critical in the democratization of energy. California and SCU’s Refract House demonstrate how America can take the lead in using technology to 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 is a case in point – it 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.
Our Silicon Valley region 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.
Just as mobile phones have become ubiquitous in the developing world, thanks to ratcheting down cost and ratcheting up availability, so too can 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 poor and underdeveloped villages. The potential is vast; the need is great.

Michael Honda is a member of Congress from California and Michael Engh is president of Santa Clara University.