Building Decathletes Hurdle Barriers to Cleaner Living

This weekend marks the conclusion of the Solar Decathlon on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy in which 20 college teams from around the world challenge one another in the high jump, pole vault, and other various athletic feats while dressed up as flaming balls of gas.

Okay, that’s not quite right: the Decathlon is indeed a competition among 20 college teams from around the globe, but rather than throwing javelins or jumping hurdles, these students compete to design, build, and run the most energy-efficient solar-powered house they can. Teams spend nearly two years designing and constructing their homes, which are then shipped to D.C., assembled on the Mall, and judged in ten different categories ranging from architectural excellence to market viability to engineering. The ultimate result is that a village of the future sprouts up in the middle of the U.S. capital almost literally overnight, and when the homes are not being judged, visitors are free to stroll through them and learn about their innovative features.

A walk through the Decathlon’s solar village exposes visitors to an incredible range of creative house designs, all balancing multiple objectives in different ways while looking like they’d be a lot of fun to move into. Designs ranged from Team Germany’s house (the ultimate winner) which somewhat resembled a giant black Rubik’s cube (the easiest to solve!) to Team Spain’s, crowned by a kind of adjustable solar parasol. All of these homes incorporate a vast range of energy-saving innovations into their design, including the use of recycled materials, green roofs to help with insulation, ultra-efficient appliances and lighting, advanced solar paneling, passive heating and cooling mechanisms, and net metering, to name a handful. Walking through these homes cannot help but leave one impressed and inspired by the promise of the teams behind them.

The winning team receives…well, the glory and bragging rights that come with beating some of their brightest peers in architecture and engineering. But more important than the competition’s point totals, however, is its role as a showcase for some of the promising technologies and practices available to reduce buildings’ energy use, and to underscore the fact that these are no longer the technologies of tomorrow, but rather the technologies of today. Since residential and commercial buildings account for nearly 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption – and 38 percent of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions – reducing energy use in buildings through efficiency measures and onsite renewable energy generation is a critical component of any serious effort to address climate change and energy security. And especially with efficiency, we can start taking energy-saving steps now.

A trip to the solar village should be required of anyone who doubts we currently have the expertise or technological capacity to begin addressing our energy problems, starting with building energy consumption.  The Solar Decathlon makes it very clear that the expertise necessary to design and build net-zero energy homes (those that produce at least as much energy on-site as they use) not only exists, but that it’s here at universities across our own country; while Team Germany took top honors in the overall competition, several American schools won in individual categories.

Patrick Hogan is Regional Policy Coordinator