Behind the Scenes at the US Solar Decathlon

Over the next two weeks the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon takes place in Irvine, California. Members of the media got a sneak-peek walkthrough yesterday at how 19 teams have translated their visions for energy efficiency, solar energy, and a laundry list of sustainable living features. (The event’s location, the Orange County Great Park, is itself a model of reuse and sustainability, formerly home to the El Toro Marine base.)

It was interesting to see the teams’ different designs and deployments of solar energy. Schools we chatted with had solar arrays ranging from around 5 to almost 10 kilowatts (kW) of capacity, all geared toward providing all or more of their house’s energy needs, one of the Solar Decathlon’s 10 judged criteria. Those with larger arrays acknowledged that takes a bite out of the “Affordability” judging metric, so they had to figure out ways to get costs back down, from utilizing reclaimed materials to different styles of furniture, to extra-thick insulation.

Nearly all had some version of rooftop PV module arrays, except one: New Jersey’s Stevens Institute of Technology’s 5.8-kW array used Dow Powerhouse Solar Shingles, essentially invisible from ground level, on a portion of their roof to provide power (the other half of the roof was “green” with plants.) A Dow rep in the house noted they weren’t quite ready to have their product trotted out at the last Solar Decathlon, but were very excited to be on display here. Check out more in our video interview and house tour below.

Middlebury College, meanwhile, took a different route with its solar array, essentially moving it off the roof and putting what amounts to a ground-mount off the back patio, providing shading and the template for a “solar path” in an envisioned community solar deployment. The 7.2-kW system’s Lumos frameless modules were designed early on, to allow more light to filter through.

Equally interesting was how some houses were specifically designed for their local environments. The Czech Technical University team had to explain how their AIR house would be installed and oppositely oriented from a house in California, and that cooling in their environment isn’t as much of a factor. The team from Arizona State and the U. of New Mexico, inspired by the desert and majestic Saguaro cactus, maintain several patios to foster microclimates. The Missouri University of Science and Technology’s house envisions residents that are “young and technically savvy.” Team Ontario’s house offers a more rustic feel as a seasonal/vacation dwelling in a northern climate.

What impressed me perhaps most of all was just how walk-in livable some of these houses were, from curb appeal to interior design touches — mass market appeal is one of the judging criteria, after all. But it’s actually the case for two teams: Middlebury’s house will head back to Vermont to become student housing for some very lucky undergrads. And Team Capitol DC’s Harvest Home will be donated to Wounded Warrior Homes to welcome and comfort a deserving veteran.

We’ll be posting inside looks at many of the Solar Decathlon houses over the duration of the event. We’ll also talk with sponsors and partners who support them, sharing their insights on the teams’ inspirations and results, and how the Solar Decathlon itself has evolved. Stay tuned!

Read more solar energy news here.

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Jim is Contributing Editor for, covering the solar and wind beats. He previously was associate editor for Solid State Technology and Photovoltaics World, and has covered semiconductor manufacturing and related industries, renewable energy and industrial lasers since 2003. His work has earned both internal awards and an Azbee Award from the American Society of Business Press Editors. Jim has 17 years of experience in producing websites and e-Newsletters in various technology markets.

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