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Students design a solar home for farmworkers

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.

The front rendering of the UC Davis students' farmworker housing unit.
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.  

“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 SciencesEngineering, 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 StudiesEnergy Efficiency CenterPlug-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

ate market.

“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.

Posted on Wednesday, October 22, 2014 at 9:57 AM

Ranching and California's drought: A workshop & webcast

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.”

A ranch manager uses feed supplements to account for little forage.
After light rain in December and January, a ranch manager uses feed supplements to make up for less forage.
Posted on Tuesday, October 21, 2014 at 1:23 PM

A guide for California wanna-bees

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.

Posted on Wednesday, October 15, 2014 at 8:09 AM
Tags: honeybees (1), native bees (1)

When your fish pond is an egret's sushi buffet

Egret downs another fish. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Ah, the joy of a fish pond. 

Goldfish swimming lazily beneath pink waterlilies,  doves splishing and splashing, frogs jumping and croaking, dragonflies darting and ambushing, and honey bees collecting water, trip after trip, for their colony.

Wonderful, right?

Not exactly. Not always. 

Not when you operate a free sushi buffet for egrets. Free? The only “bill” around is the one they're using to snag your fish. 

Last winter when the crape myrtle tree that shades our fish pond dropped its leaves, it was easy viewing and easy pickings for the egrets. Step up to the board walk, dip down and eat your fill. The main perpetrator was a Great Egret, about 3 to 4 feet tall, which true to its name, exhibited a Great Appetite. Thirty fish went down the hatch, including Bubba, Nemo and Goldie.  Fortunately, they were not koi.

Looking through the terracotta pipe. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
We were rather fond of them, though.  

How can you protect your fish pond from egrets?

Say that you don't want to net your pond or string fishing line over it. Nor do you want to play rap music, add plastic decoys (crocodiles, alligators, owls, snakes and bigger egrets), set mouse traps, install a motion-detector flood light, or change your pond logistics or landscape. 

You also don't want a water scarecrow that will spray water every time it detects motion. You don't want something that uses compressed air to scare the livin' daylights out of your neighbors in a dead sleep, not to mention the folks in the next zip code.  And, you don't want to enlist the help of your Resident Alert Dog (RAD) for Egret Duty (ED). (Besides at 5 a.m., RAD is not alert. He's sound asleep on the corner of the bed, dreaming of chasing cats that run, not 3-foot-tall egrets that don't.) 

What can you do for little or no cost to protect your pond from egrets? 

A terracotta castle.

A terracotta pipe lowered into the pond makes an excellent “hidey hole.” It's heavy. Egrets can't move it or reach it. It's earthy. Terracotta is Latin for ”baked earth.” It's used for bricks, flower pots, water and waste water pipes, and to tile the roofs of Spanish-style homes. 

And it makes a wonderful hidey-hole, as fish can dart in and stay in as danger lurks.

Of course, there could be some problems.  If your goldfish are accustomed to surfacing when their food magically appears, they may also surface when an egret shadows the pond. But just as the “second mouse gets the cheese,” many will escape to the hidey hole. 

If you want to learn more about koi, tropical fish, and water gardens, visit this page, California Aquaculture, part of the UC Davis Department of Animal Science.

Another good UC resource is Water Gardening: Aquatic Gardens, Not Aquatic Pests: How to Practice Responsible Water Gardening. It offers a wealth of information and links to more information.

True, egrets are majestic birds, but we'd rather the sushi buffet be in a restaurant, not in our fish pond. 

Pink waterlilies glowing in a garden pond. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Pink waterlilies glowing in a garden pond. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Pink waterlilies glowing in a garden pond. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Terracotta pipe can be a hiding place for fish. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Terracotta pipe can be a hiding place for fish. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Terracotta pipe can be a hiding place for fish. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Terracotta pipe lowered into a fish pond. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)
Terracotta pipe lowered into a fish pond. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Terracotta pipe lowered into a fish pond. (Photo by Kathy Keatley Garvey)

Posted on Wednesday, October 8, 2014 at 8:16 AM

Conservation organization California Trout helps establish endowed chair at UC Davis

Jeff Thompson, California Trout's executive director, does a little fly fishing on the McCloud River. He played a crucial role in establishing the organization's partnership with UC Davis to ensure that research, teaching, and outreach on wild trout, salmon, and steelhead will continue for many years.

California once teemed with millions of native salmon, trout and steelhead. The state has 31 distinct types of these iconic, majestic fish. But decades of degradation to aquatic habitat has depleted their numbers in many areas of the state. According to a report by UC Davis fisheries professor Peter Moyle and colleagues, 20 of these fish species are in danger of extinction within the next century. They are important species not just for the recreational or commercial benefits they afford, but also because they are a direct reflection of the health of the environment.

“Large self-sustaining populations of native salmon and trout are found where streams are in reasonably good condition,” Moyle wrote in his 2008 report, “SOS: California's Native Fish Crisis.” This report was commissioned by the conservation organization California Trout (CalTrout), which exists to support conservation science, education, and advocacy efforts to protect California's water resources and fisheries.

Moyle, whose academic home is the Department of Wildlife, Fish and Conservation Biology at UC Davis, is no stranger to CalTrout. He is the foremost authority on California's native freshwater and anadromous (sea-run) fishes and has been a leader in research and conservation efforts. His research has provided the core science essential to statewide conservation planning for freshwater and estuarine native fishes, especially salmon and trout. Graduate students who studied with Moyle now occupy many top-level fish ecologist and management positions in state and federal agencies, as well as key nonprofits like CalTrout.

A Russian River steelhead gets released back into the waters of this important North Coast waterway.
“Peter has been an invaluable resource and instrumental in establishing such a strong scientific foundation in our work,” said CalTrout's executive director Jeff Thompson.

In May of this year CalTrout and UC Davis announced the formal creation of the Peter B. Moyle and California Trout Endowed Chair in Cold Water Fishes. The endowment will provide crucial support for the chair holder's scholarly activities, teaching, and public service involving cold water fish and aquatic ecosystems. He or she will teach department courses, mentor graduate students, conduct research and outreach, and provide leadership in the conservation of cold water fishes and their ecosystems. The university recognizes that salmon, trout, and steelhead are the major drivers of many conservation efforts and will have the highest priority in the chair's program.

Most of the contributors to the endowment are CalTrout board members such as Nick Graves. He and his wife, Mary, explored many trails and trout waters in the Sierra Nevada over the years and have enjoyed larger rivers flowing from the Trinity Alps, Mt. Shasta, and the Siskiyou Mountains. “The opportunity to create a scientific chair whose research targets California waters, in perpetuity, is a comforting thought,” Graves said.

“I have worked with the organization since its earliest days and have always admired the dedication of its members to aquatic conservation,” Moyle said. “I am biased, of course, but I think CalTrout has made a very smart investment in the future by creating an endowed chair.”

Jacob Katz (left), director of California Trout's salmon and steelhead initiatives, and Professor Peter Moyle (right) are pictured at the Yolo Bypass, where their research is evaluating the importance of the area for rearing juvenile salmon.


Posted on Tuesday, September 30, 2014 at 8:58 AM
Tags: California Trout (1), CalTrout (1), cold water fish (1), Moyle (2), Peter Moyle (3), salmon (4), steelhead (1), trout (1)

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