Solar Decathlon Students Get Inspiration From a Former Decathlete Turned Engineer

SoCore Energy employee Pete Stein credits the decathlon for his transition from studying biofuels to designing solar systems.

September 30, 2015 | By Charles Coleman

Four years ago, Pete Stein was a 19-year-old student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign competing as a member of his school’s 2011 solar decathlon team.

He was back in Irvine this week at the all-team kickoff for the 2015 competition, but this time as a full-time engineer for Chicago-based SoCore Energy, a solar energy provider and subsidiary of Edison International.

Stein said his experience at the 2011 solar decathlon led him to refocus his studies from biofuels to a concentration in renewable energy systems. That led him to his current job as a photovoltaic engineer designing solar systems for commercial and industrial clients across the country.

“During the decathlon, I suddenly was in a situation where I had to solve problems with other people who not only saw a different solution, but a different problem,” he said. “Without the experience I obtained on the solar decathlon team, I would not have been able to make the transition from working solely with engineers in college to working with all of the diverse and amazing people I get to interact with every day at SoCore.”

Alex McDonald, the project manager for Team Orange County in this year’s solar decathlon, said the competition exposes the student teams to a variety of disciplines.

“It’s so much more than just building a little house,” said McDonald, who is pursuing a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of California, Irvine. “The project is the epitome of STEM — science, technology, engineering or math — in a big way.”

Sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, this year’s solar decathlon challenges 14 college teams to design, build and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive. The winner will be the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

“Thanks to the solar decathlon, students are able to get a taste of what it’s like to work in renewable energy and sustainability,” said Pete Kadens, president of SoCore Energy. “As a solar energy provider, it is meaningful to us to support this effort, as it ultimately leads to an engaged, passionate and talented workforce.”

Edison International, the parent company of Southern California Edison (SCE), and SCE donated a combined $400,000 for this year’s solar decathlon and to support Team Orange County. The team is a joint effort of about 100 students from Chapman University, Irvine Valley College, Saddleback College and UCI. 

The solar decathlon, which is free to the public, will take place over two weekends, Oct. 8-11 and Oct. 15-18, at the Orange County Great Park in Irvine. Visitors will be able to tour the solar-powered houses, gather ideas to use in their own homes and learn how energy-saving features can help them save money.