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Five Questions for Richard King, Solar Decathlon Director

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

By Alexis Powers

Richard King is the founder and director of the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon. We asked him five (okay, six) questions to learn more about him and his role.

1. When was your first Solar Decathlon?

I first had the idea to launch a student-centered solar competition in 1999. I had been working at the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) for 10 years conducting research on solar photovoltaic systems. We had developed highly reliable solar panels, but few people trusted them or thought they looked appealing on rooftops. Because the market barriers had a lot to do with perception and lack of knowledge, I turned my attention to education. How can we educate more homeowners, and how can we design and build beautiful, appealing solar houses that people would want to live in?

I needed help to design better houses, so I recruited schools of architecture. Because we needed to attract thousands of people to come see the houses, I came up with the idea of a competition in the year 2000. I gave the university teams two years to design and build their houses, so the first competition was held on the National Mall (in Washington, D.C.) in 2002. Fourteen pioneering teams showed up on the Mall, and people came by the thousands to see the future.

2. What is the most important thing you contribute to the competition?

I contributed a willingness to take a risk with that first event. The Solar Decathlon put something new out in front of the Capitol building on a world stage. What if it failed? That risk paid off, leading to more than a decade of hands-on education.

Over the past 13 years, my primary role has been providing leadership. I have assembled a passionate and dedicated staff to run the competition and recruited the best and brightest young creative minds to design and build inspiring houses. Still, bringing all the moving parts together requires many decisions on a day-to-day basis, so I provide the necessary guidance. In addition, I bring organizational skills, which I acquired by coordinating solar car races during the 1990s. Engineering students designed—from the ground up—electric vehicles powered by solar cells. It was great fun and a great learning environment. Lastly, I bring the DOE!

Photo of Richard King with the sun rising in the background.

Richard King kicks off Solar Decathlon 2013, his sixth Solar Decathlon competition, as the sun breaks the horizon at Orange County Great Park.

3. What does a typical day during the competition look like for you?

The day always starts with a team meeting to go over everything that’s required for the day—basically everything on the schedule. The contests have to be run, the stories have to be captured, and sometimes awards ceremonies and special events take place. I follow the action, do interviews with the media, and take lots of photos.  I like to write about the competition in my daily online journal. I also love giving tours of the solar village to people. Sometimes I wish I wasn’t so busy directing!

4. Which technological innovation has you most excited for a clean energy future?

What excites me the most is the development of the zero-net energy home—a house that supplies its own power from sunlight. Clean energy technologies represent an important piece of the global climate puzzle. Solar is a solution that people can adopt on their own homes, but the reduction in carbon emissions is something we can all benefit from. These houses are highly technical but also fun to live in and easy to use. With the competition aspect, you can learn about what strategy really works best. I also get excited about bringing 20 houses together at one time—each of them different, yet all of them using the same power source. It’s so inspiring. Cool science!

5. What do you enjoy doing in your free time?

Free time? What’s that? I like to spend time with my family. I’ve never been much of a hobby guy. I simply like to relax at home. I like to build, so I always have a project or two around the house that is underway.

I just finished a sidewalk to heaven. We have a flower/vegetable garden beside our house, and I built a stone walkway over to it from the side porch. My wife loves the garden because it attracts so many butterflies, so I told her let’s call the walkway her “sidewalk to heaven.”

Bonus question: What do you find most rewarding?

For me, it’s seeing the passion in the students and knowing they are going to make a difference in the world. The Solar Decathlon has been a great opportunity for thousands of students—for some life-changing— and being a part of that is incredibly rewarding.

Alexis Powers is a member of the Solar Decathlon communications team.

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