Solar Decathletes Bring Homebuilding Talents to Washington, D.C.

Over the past few weeks, college students have been shedding light on the future of solar energy on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. Out of 19 teams from around the globe and 10 energy performance and livability contests, one overall winner emerged at the recently held U.S. Department of Energy 2011 Solar Decathlon. The winning WaterShed home design, built by students from the University of Maryland, was inspired by the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem. The house included a 9.2 kilowatt rooftop solar array and prominently featured storm water management and recycling components, such as a butterfly roof and pollution filtration.

The biennial Solar Decathlon features teams of college students competing to design the most cost-effective, energy-efficient, and livable solar-powered home. Teams, made up of students studying subjects including architecture, engineering, and environmental and plant science, spent two years designing and constructing the homes on university campuses before setting up shop in West Potomac Park on the National Mall for 10 days of competition.

While a solar home competition might seem like a cute and fun look into the future, the innovative home designs are quite pertinent to addressing climate change today. After all, 39 percent of total U.S. carbon dioxide emissions come from residential and commercial buildings. The Solar Decathlon provides the opportunity to showcase engineering ingenuity and readily available advanced technologies, both active and passive, to create net-zero-energy homes. These included triple-glazed windows for increased insulation, Trombe walls that absorb solar energy during the day and release it into the home’s interior at night, and bifacial solar panels, which can generate up to 30 percent more power than traditional solar panels.

The Appalachian State University team’s house featuring the bifacial panels was a crowd favorite, winning the People’s Choice Award and simultaneously enhancing competition amusement by inspiring thousands of visitors to wear trendy reflective hats to increase their home’s energy generation (as well as protect visitors from those with mind-reading capabilities!).

Building concepts from the competition’s top finishers included CHIP, designed by SCI-arc/Caltech, featuring an ultramodern vinyl-coated ‘outsulation’ enveloping the home’s interior; Team New Zealand’s First Light Kiwi bach, or vacation home, with New Zealand-native sheep wool insulation; and Purdue University’s INhome, which had a more traditional design in comparison to other homes at the competition, aiming to meet the needs of a typical Midwestern consumer.

While the solar industry may have its naysayers in the United States, industry prospects continue to improve. In the past two years, solar PV cell prices have been cut in half, installation costs have decreased 30 percent, and U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) investments continue to drive down these costs. It is important for the United States to capitalize on these developments to increase its competitiveness in the still-growing industry. Since 2007, the DOE has leveraged $59 million in federal funds to attract $1.2 billion in private capital to develop renewable energy technologies, and the United States remains a net exporter of solar technology, with $5.6 billion in exports.

With programs like the Department of Energy’s SunShot Initiative, which aims to drive the cost of solar energy to grid parity by 2020, the United States can facilitate public-private partnerships to advance solar technologies and capture their many benefits, such as reduced energy bills, net metering, and improved air quality for households. The 2011 Solar Decathlon was inspirational: the public thronged to the Mall to take 357,000 house tours, and the University of Maryland brought home the first American victory at the competition since 2005.

Sam Wurzelmann is a Solutions Fellow