10 Solar Decathlon lessons

Steve Leone, editor with RenewableEnergyWorld.com, shares 10 things he learned from the houses of this year’s Solar Decathlon in Washington DC. Keep it local, or watch out for China? Both, Leone found, and much more.

October 6, 2011 — Richard King has been there from the beginning, so he?s seen the evolution. When he launched the Department of Energy?s Solar Decathlon in 2002, he did so with 14 pioneering schools and a vision for how youthful innovation could fuse emerging solar technology with efficient building practices.

What he?s seen has spanned from traditional to transcendent. He calls this year?s class the fifth generation, and he says in a lot of ways the results are five times better. Each class builds off the innovations of the previous event as the students challenge limitations and push the technology to greater capabilities. This year’s winner was the University of Maryland’s WaterShed House.

The competition stands as more than a testament to solar power?s growing status. It serves as a reminder that the true power of solar technology and building efficiency are only achieved when they mature together from the ground up and under one roof.

?Over the years, architects have discovered that solar panels can be a building product,? said King. ?The Decathlon really showed them that. These houses, they?re not only using solar for the roofing system, in some cases, they are the roofing system. They?re using them for skylights, awnings and even doors in beautiful, artistic ways.?

I had the opportunity to speak with King this past weekend at the Solar Decathlon on the National Mall in Washington. And I had a chance to tour all 19 homes, and speak to many of the students who have spent the past two years creating the structures that redefine what is possible. Future participants for the 2013 Solar Decathlon were already on hand to see what insights they could build upon for display two years from now. They were there to look and to learn.

And so was I. Here?s some valuable lessons I picked up along the way.

1. You Don?t Need Sun for Solar

SCI-Arc/Caltech’s entry in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011, Washington D.C., Sept. 30, 2011. (Credit: Jim Tetro/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

You?d think the team from California would be out of its element. Dreary Washington must have seemed to be a long, long way from its sunny Southern California home. Yet the team still managed to hit net-zero, meaning they produced more energy than they consumed. In all, seven teams accomplished this feat despite 10 days of nearly solid cloud cover. Looked at from the right angle, the rain provided a ray of light. Generally, the criticism goes that solar becomes unreliable when the sun isn?t shining. Just don?t tell that to the teams that continued to do their laundry, wash their dishes and tune into their televisions.

2. Those Who Inspire Can Be Inspired

Anyone who attended the competition and toured the houses must have left feeling pretty good about the state of higher education. From faculty, to graduate students to undergrads, the level of innovation, expertise and craftsmanship was truly remarkable. But the students themselves must have been inspired when Energy Secretary Steven Chu pointed to them and said that they were the next generation of leaders who will help build a new energy economy. A couple of team members I spoke with said they felt that challenge personally.

3. The Human Touch

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s entry in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011, Washington D.C., Sept. 30, 2011. (Credit: Jim Tetro/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Residents of the Midwest have become all too familiar with the sight of destruction. Even before Joplin, Mo., was reduced to a sprawling landscape of debris, tornadoes had ravaged small communities near the University of Illinois campus. When disaster strikes a tiny town, FEMA doesn?t always step in. So the team?s engineers and architects saw an opportunity to build a home that an insurance company could offer as a long-term replacement. The fact that it?s solar powered and energy efficient makes it a good investment. The fact that it can arrive and be set up within a week and a half makes it a life-changing solution.

4. Keep it Local

Middlebury College’s entry in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011, Washington D.C., Sept. 30, 2011. (Credit: Jim Tetro/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

When you live in Vermont, ?Made in Vermont? is a lifestyle choice. So the students from Middlebury College decided to keep the dollars in their backyard by focusing on products made locally. No, this didn?t include the solar panels. But it did include the cedar siding and the Vermont slate used for the flooring and the kitchen counter. Those decisions spoke to the notion of self-reliance, a growing concept in home building and one that promotes efficient concepts and sustainable solutions.

5. If You Build It, They Can Ship It

The challenge with this competition is that after you build it, you have to take it apart and move it. Then you put it back together on site. For eventual champions University of Maryland, that meant trucking their home through the Beltway. For Team New Zealand, it meant traversing half the planet. Team China cut right to the chase and decided to make their house out of three shipping containers. Team Florida designed a tracking system that literally moved the bedroom and the back of the home into the living room for easy shipping.

6. Innovation and Installation

There?s a lot of debate right now about whether America can — or even should — compete with Chinese panel manufacturers. King says that question misses the mark as it relates to the Solar Decathlon. The event has never been about how to engineer a better solar panel. It?s about how to better integrate that existing panel into your home. The jobs, he says, are going to be in the installation of solar. No doubt about it — that?s an American industry. And the quicker architects and home builders jump on board, the more jobs will be waiting.

7. Here Comes China

Team China’s entry in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011, Washington D.C., Sept. 23, 2011. (Credit: Jim Tetro/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

According to King, China will build 400,000 new housing units over the next 10 years. That?s far more than the number of current housing units currently in existence across America. So if solar can become a central energy component for new homes in China, the market would skyrocket. The Decathlon not only selected the students from Tongji University to compete in Washington, it also coordinated with the Chinese government to launch a China version of the Solar Decathlon in 2013. The excitement was apparent inside the Team China home, where students talked about the importance of the coming event as their nation prepares for a growing solar market.

8. Real Homes Need Real People

Parsons NS Stevens’ entry in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011, Washington D.C., Sept. 30, 2011. (Credit: Jim Tetro/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

Many of the homes will go on display as an educational tool. Others will be sold to the highest bidder. But some will be used to bring innovation to neighborhoods where it can take root. One example is the home built by Parson?s School for Design and Steven Institute of Technology. The Washington-based team built their home for Habitat for Humanity, which will place it in the Greater Deanwood section of the city. The team also built the home to be able to accommodate a second floor, which will include another bedroom and an upstairs roof deck and garden. The woman whose family will soon occupy the house visited the team at the Decathlon earlier in the competition. The next time she sees the house, she?ll be calling it home.

9. How Much Does This Thing Cost?

This year?s Solar Decathlon walked right up to the elephant in the room. King admits he was a bit nervous about implementing the competition?s first affordability requirement. ?How can you be innovative and cost-effective at the same time?? he said. There was genuine surprise shown by many of those in attendance once they learned that most of the homes were built for around $250,000. In all, the cost to build the homes came down about a third compared to two years ago. The price of panels has dropped significantly so that has helped. The rest was achieved by employing smart building solutions using mostly off-the-shelf products. 

10. Build and Build and Build Some More

Appalachian State’s entry in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011, Washington D.C., Sept. 30, 2011. (Credit: Jim Tetro/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon)

You don?t always need an all-or-nothing approach. It?s true — we?re not going to tear down our homes and prop up solar-powered, more efficient versions in their place. But we can use solar solutions for additions to our homes. And we can think big in small ways if we decide to go the solar route when adding that in-law unit above the garage or that art studio in the backyard. The team from Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., built the Solar Homestead, and part of their approach was to create a solar powered network of unattached structures, each with their own dedicated panels.

Steve Leone writes for the Renewable Energy World network. Find his bio here. This article originally appeared on www.renewableenergyworld.com and is republished here with permission.

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