The first time the Solar Decathlon was held at the Orange County Great Park in 2013, volunteer Alex McDonald impressed U.S. Dept. of Energy organizers with his relentless energy and can-do spirit. While he has a deep interest in sustainability, what McDonald really wanted to do was continue his engineering studies at a major research university. One of the Decathlon officials pointed out UCI’s Henry Samueli School of Engineering Dean Gregory Washington, who was just about to board a shuttle bus.
McDonald saw his chance. He introduced himself to Washington, and by the time they reached their destination, they were exchanging contact information and planning next steps.
McDonald applied and was admitted in 2014 as a graduate student in mechanical and environmental engineering. As part of his scholarship, he would be required to manage one of the most complicated, unique construction challenges on the planet: a UCI-led Team Orange County entry in the next Solar Decathlon.
“The Solar Decathlon is the most comprehensive student design-build test that I know of,” says Washington. “Building a home is complex; building a net-zero home is ultra-complex; and then building a home that’s competing against 15 or 20 other teams globally really ratchets up the intensity.”
McDonald saw the Solar Decathlon as an opportunity to combine his eclectic interests into his graduate studies. Products and systems tested and displayed in the contest are destined to become commonplace in homes of the future, he notes.
“The Solar Decathlon is a chance for the people involved to make their dreams come true. It’s like Disneyland for engineers. With a lot of traditional engineering programs, you don’t get to touch anything. Solar Decathlon upends that dynamic in a very real, tangible way.”
Team Orange County’s Casa de Sol would not be possible without the support of countless contributors, both large and small, who were part of UCI’s $1 billion “Shaping the Future” campaign, the first campaign in the Orange County region to ever attempt, and reach, $1 billion. These donors and others have helped hundreds of students participate in globally impactful events like the Solar Decathlon.
For McDonald, 31, like most of the more than 100 students from four schools working on the project, promoting alternative energy is deeply personal. His father worked as a chemical engineer at the Hanford Nuclear Reactor site and his mother as a mechanical engineer specializing in waste clean-up, so energy has always been a big part of his life.
“As a child, I would argue with my dad about the merits of renewable energy,” he says. “He was a big proponent of nuclear energy despite the fact that Hanford’s nuclear waste turned the surrounding area into one of the most polluted places on the planet.”
McDonald always argued that renewable energy should be pursued first; it was cleaner and posed less risk to humanity.
“My father would respond, ‘You’re not an engineer. You don’t understand.’ ”
McDonald is an engineer now – and more. He earned undergraduate degrees in global political science and mechanical engineering at Washington State University. In addition to his rigorous academic load, McDonald has juggled everything from raising $1 million in cash, equipment, labor and other resources from Orange County’s biggest institutions to supervising seven separate student construction teams.
While he’s proud of the extremely innovative technologies in Team Orange County’s Casa del Sol, McDonald says coordinating it all is “kind of like being in finals week – every day, for over two years straight.”
But he finds it deeply satisfying. His life’s aim is to develop a more sustainable, higher quality of life for future generations.
“I don’t think we’ve come anywhere close to pushing the envelope on renewable energy and green building. We need to be much more aggressive.”
Through the all-consuming project’s ups and downs, the best part is seeing younger students grow into leaders in their own right. The real-world training they have gained through this effort has launched careers that promise to produce the future leaders in clean-tech industry.
As for McDonald, “I plan for opportunity. I don’t know where I’ll be in five years – whether it’s being a clean-tech entrepreneur, working in the governor’s office promoting clean-tech best practices, or pursuing a doctorate in engineering or finance along similar lines. Wherever I end up, I want to do my part to leave our planet in better shape than when I found it.”