The Glamorous Life of a Solar Decathlete

The life of a solar decathlete isn’t all filled with glamor and glitz. Sure, there’s the notoriety, travel, late night partying and mingling with politicians in the nation’s capital — but it takes hard work and true grit to change the world.

The 12-hour days are filled with endless public tours, stressful competitions and incessant interviews with reporters.

But Brittany Williams of the University of Maryland seems to be handling the stress well. Wearing dark sunglasses and standing non-chalantly with her arms crossed in front of Maryland’s solar home, you wouldn’t know that her team — the hometown favorites — just gave up the lead to the Germans. The two teams have been battling for the leader flag throughout the competition, and with only an hour before the end of the Decathlon, Darmstadt Technical University has taken taken the top spot in the standings.

“We’re still optimistic that we can win, but it’s going to come down to the last event. We’re all on edge and we’re just going to have to wait and see,” says Williams.

A few doors down, the Germans are smiling and laughing on the back porch of their home, anticipating a win of the Solar Decathlon title. Having already prevailed in the energy balance, lighting and architecture events, the first-time competitors are hoping to take the engineering category and solidify their place as the overall leaders.

Simon Gardner, an architecture student at Darmstadt, shows off the sleek building-integrated photovoltaic system affixed to the south, east and west sides of the home he helped design. 

“We are all so excited. We never expected to be winners, we just are happy to be here,” says Gardner. “We weren’t sure what people would think about the house, and it’s just great that we have gotten a positive response. It’s been a very challenging year-and-a-half, but it’s also very rewarding.”

Winning the Solar Decathlon is a top honor for a university. The event represents the end of a two-year process of designing, building and operating a solar-powered home that can meet the energy needs of a typical American family.

Teams from North America and Europe submit proposals to the Department of Energy and if selected to participate, receive $100,000 to construct an 800 square foot green home. Once built, the houses are shipped to Washington, DC where they make up a small net energy positive neighborhood on the National Mall. The 20 teams then compete in 10 contests to prove the functionality and livability of their homes.

A Solar Decathlon home must be attractive, easy to live in, maintain a comfortable temperature, have adequate lighting, power household appliances and provide consistent hot water. In addition, teams must power an electric car with the remainder of their electricity generated by their photovoltaic system.

Having worked hard to get their homes perfect for the event, the teams feel a strong sense of competitiveness.

“We’ve had countless sleepless nights thinking about this project, so we definitely want to win and prove the viability of our house,” says Maryland’s Williams.

Of course, the competition is all in good fun. The real purpose of the Decathlon is to develop the skills of tomorrow’s architects and engineers and show the general public that sustainable building and renewable energy are functional, cost-effective and downright cool.

“Education is really the overarching goal of the Decathlon,” says event Director Richard King. “We want to educate students…we want to educate the professionals who are learning from the students…and we are also educating the consumers. By educating everyone, we are stirring up the pot and creating a nice market out there.”

Standing next to the Maryland house, King looks at all the people around him, most of whom are waiting in long lines to get a look inside the dwellings. More than 100,000 people have come to the event, he says. That’s roughly 50% growth over 2005. And because the event has been so successful, the Department of Energy (DOE) is now working with the Spanish government to set up a Solar Decathlon Europe.

When Henry Gentenaar first moved to DC in 2002, he stumbled upon the Decathlon and walked freely into the houses. Now working as a representative for the Department of Energy, he is able to bypass the queues that can sometimes be an hour long.

“It’s amazing. Our weekday traffic was not that much lower than our Saturday-Sunday traffic,” says Gentenaar. “This is such remarkable growth. Now it’s standing room only – the houses are just packed with folks.”

Standing room only describes the awards ceremony, too. When it finally begins, there is such a large audience gathered under the circus-style tent that the university teams can barely fit in with the sweaty sea of people.

Once everyone is crammed around the stage, the students look eagerly to the judges for the results of the final competition. When the winner of the engineering event is named, the German team erupts in celebration. The newcomers have won. By taking the last event, Darmstadt has clinched the overall title of the 2007 Solar Decathlon. Behind them are Maryland in second place and Santa Clara University in third.

After congratulating the Germans and all the other teams, Assistant Secretary of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Andy Karsner gazes out at the students, teachers, politicians, industry advocates and consumers who make up the crowd.

“We are all winners today. Because of the amazing work that these folks have done — proving that these technologies work — we all win. My three little girls who don’t even know what’s going on today are winners because of the work that these students have done.”

On Sunday, the teams of students break down the houses and go back to their studies, ending the long and difficult road to becoming a solar decathlete. But while this year’s Decathlon might be ending, the work that these students do in practicing green building and promoting renewable energy is only just beginning.

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