Solar Decathlon Draws to a Close

The University of Colorado’s first place win Saturday wrapped up the final day of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) first-ever Solar Decathlon.

Washington, D.C. – October 9, 2002 [] The University of Virginia captured second place, while Auburn University took third in the ten day competition. Not only was the decathlon the first national solar house building competition but it was also the first time a “village” came alive on the National Mall, and the largest collection of solar houses ever assembled in one place. No wonder it didn’t have any trouble drawing a crowd. “People were just magnetized by the village itself,” said Richard King, team leader for the DOE’s Photovoltaic (PV) Program. “I saw lines of people waiting 20 minutes just to get a look at the insides of the houses.” King came up with the idea for the Solar Decathlon three years ago after he had spent years organizing intercollegiate solar-car races. He knew the technological leaps and bounds achieved by the solar cars throughout the years could be matched through a solar house competition as well. “The first solar cars averaged only 13 mph back in 1990, but last year we were handing out speeding tickets for going over 70 mph,” King said. “I wanted to see these sorts of advances with solar homes and I wanted to get builders and architects to work from the ground up rather than retrofitting existing homes which is more costly.” Although transporting the houses to Washington presented a significant challenge, especially compared to moving solar cars, the same spirit of competition and ingenuity brought them all together in one place for some friendly competition. The University of Colorado’s entry traveled the farthest to get to the competition, while the University of Puerto Rico’s team faced the unique challenge of transporting the partially disassembled house from trucks to a boat and then back to a truck. The teams and their houses descended upon the National Mall September 18 when over 70 trucks rumbled in at midnight to unload the houses. As the nation’s capitol slept, hundreds of students and workers labored to get the trucks unloaded before the morning traffic began. The DOE’s stipend of US$5000 per school helped reduce the overall project costs while the teams raised the additional funds to finance their solar homes. In order to be competitive, team members had to come from a broad spectrum of disciplines – such as engineering and architecture – because of the ten individual competitions within the decathlon. “The aspect of competition motivates our best and brightest to be more creative and from that you accelerate research and development,” King said. Competition rules dictated teams compete by building houses that blend aesthetics and modern conveniences with maximum energy production and efficiency. In appearance, the homes are a mix of traditional and modern, but all are powered entirely by the sun and incorporate state-of-the-art energy efficiency technologies, according to organizers. For the competition, the solar decathletes had to figure ways to harness the power of the sun to supply all the energy for an entire household, including a home-based business, and the transportation needs of the household and business. Each house, limited to roughly 500-square-feet, was judged on 10 criteria to determine which most efficiently employed solar energy for heating, cooling, hot water, lighting, appliances, computers and charging an electric car. King was surprised by the variety of design innovations and impressed by how many schools went above and beyond the requirements. In an attempt to increase the overall energy efficiency of the homes, many teams used sustainable, recycled, building materials, often from local vendors. The designs reflected a broad spectrum of ideas from the progressive avante garde to more traditional designs. The uses of technology were as varied as the architecture with some houses amplifying light with prisms and others combining PV with thermal water heaters to best optimize the sun’s energy. “The Solar Decathlon proves that solar energy is practical today,” Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham said at the closing ceremony. “It is affordable, and solar-powered homes can be livable and attractive. Our investment in Renewable Energy and energy efficiency technologies can contribute to the nation’s energy security.”


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