Officials examine the remainsnof a burned-out home after the California wildfiresThis week’s news is reporting on Pacific Gas & Electric, the southern California utility company that has applied for bankruptcy amidst blame for the devastating wildfires that have ravaged the region and the resultant damage to their power infrastructure.  The bankruptcy process is designed to protect them from lawsuits and legal penalties, as well as the expected cost of rebuilding their power transmission systems.  But the rebuilding process is expected to mean higher prices for customers throughout their coverage area.

This situation provides a unique opportunity… not for the utility company, and not just for the area residents, but for the many organizations and universities that have participated in the Solar Home Decathalons in the U.S. and overseas.

Solar Decathalon at the Mall in Washington, DCThe Solar Home Decathalons have been held in the US since 2002.  More than 150 collegiate teams, many aided and supported by leaders in the solar and sustainable technology industries, have participated in the Decathalons, either in the U.S. or in Decathalons held in EuropeChinaLatin AmericaAfrica, and the Middle East, involving an additional 160 teams and nearly 19,000 participants.

I’ve attended many of the Decathalons held in Washington, DC over the years.  And as a fan of solar power and sustainable design, I have regularly been impressed by some of the innovative and efficient designs I’ve had the chance to walk through and ask questions from the design teams.  I discovered that, although most of the homes were test-beds intended simply to compete in the Decathalon’s ten competition areas, some of the homes were built move-in ready, and many of the design teams hoped to be able to ultimately create home designs that would be made available to the public.  (My wife and I have already agreed that one of the home designs by University of Maryland, shown below, would be ideal for our retirement home.)

University of MD entry in Solar DecathalonAnd here’s where the opportunity arises: Many of the homes in regions of southern California affected by the wildfires have been completely destroyed, so many homeowners who decide to stay in the area will have to have their homes rebuilt from the ground-up.  If they stay, they can also expect to pay higher utility prices from PG&E.  If ever there was a time and place to apply energy-efficient and sustainable home-building, this is it.

Students building a home for the Solar Home DecathalonHere’s how it could work: A Decathalon participant university or industry supporter could approach homeowners and offer the plans of their Decathalon home (modified as needed to be move-in ready) for no cost, with an appropriate discount on materials, to build on their property.  The same deal could be made, even if the family decides to move elsewhere.  Most of the Decathalon homes have a smaller footprint than average homes, as well as being energy-efficient and sustainably-built, and with materials discounts and support from insurance companies and state and federal incentive programs, the homes should be lower in cost compared to recreating the original home.

A Decathalon home with a sizable bank of solar cell panels on its roofThe major advantage is that the home would produce its own power and therefore save on energy costs, either partially or totally, allowing homeowners to minimize their utilities costs paid to PG&E… and maybe allow homeowners to disconnect from PG&E, or even generate surplus energy that can be sold back to PG&E and pay the homeowner.  Its energy independence and efficiency would also allow the home to be lived in and fully functional, well before PG&E can restore its infrastructure in that area.

The other advantages are the rollout of numerous sustainably-built and energy-efficient homes, allowing more of the public to see them in a real-world environment and share information about them.  Those lived-in homes would supply copious amounts of real data about their performance, making it easier for future homeowners to research and choose between different designs and aspects, and for prospective designers and home-builders to learn and build similar and better homes in the future.

Admittedly, there won’t be too many advantages for PG&E in this scenario.  But there is one: The more energy-efficient and energy-independent homes in their customer area, the less of an immediate demand is put on their energy infrastructure, potentially making it easier for them to rebuild and recover.  The existence of so many independently-powered homes, potentially supplying power back to the utility company, could also spur a new power paradigm in the US, decentralizing power production and making the regional power system more robust and less threatened by power demands and regional disasters.

There’s nothing good about the regional damage caused by the California wildfires disaster.  But the need to rebuild presents a valuable and unique opportunity to help homeowners get sustainable, energy-efficient housing, saving them money, and adding to the nation’s sustainable infrastructure.