DC's Greatest Event: The Solar Decathlon

Posted by Neville Williams

Oct 21, 2009 3:20:00 PM

solar-decathlon-house2If there ever was an event for our time, it is the Solar Decathlon (original post w/video) on the National Mall in Washington DC, the fourth one of which just concluded. Begun in 2002, with support from the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE), The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and BP Solar, the Solar Decathlon brings together 20 universities from the U.S., and some from overseas, to erect innovative, full sized, green, solar powered, energy efficient homes in a "solar town" on the expanse of grass in front of the Nation's Capitol.

There is nothing like it in the world.

Each house – every one more amazing than the next -- is designed and built collaboratively by the universities' departments of engineering and architecture. The DOE provides $100,000 per school that elects, and is selected, to submit a house, and the students raise another $400 to $500 thousand per project. They build them on campus, test them, then disassemble them for shipping to Washington.

Student creativity alive

The incredible thing about the event, held every two years in October, is not just the display of clean energy ingenuity, but the energy and enthusiasm of the students themselves. They come not just to show off their ideas and talents, but to compete, i.e. the "Decathlon" title: homes are judged in 10 separate categories, from efficiency, to materials, to design, to solar panel installation performance. Each university brings a team of about 20, and they are thrilled on the opening day to be greeted by the Secretary of Energy, this year Dr. Stephen Chu.

If I were recruiting for jobs in solar manufacturing, engineering or home building, I'd set up a table right here. These kids are the best of a generation. The are smart, committed, energetic, and terrifically nice.

The public loves the event, and this year I took my friend, Ed Begley, Jr., around on a dismal Saturday morning. We visited the wonderful Penn State "Natural Fusion" zero-energy house, which demonstrated, as each house does in a unique way, the future of affordable solar power homes. This year, they were all "grid-tied", without batteries as in the past, feeding into the local PEPCO power grid. Penn State's house featured the new Solyndra cylindrical photovoltaic cells which are spaced on their modules in such a way as to allow sunshine to reach a green roof planted beneath them. Solar on "greenroofs" is the future.

Solar in the rain

Ed was amazed to see so many people, tourists and Washingtonians, out "looking at solar in the rain." I was distressed at the uncooperative weather this year. In my 22 years in the DC metro area, I've only twice seen weather as bad as it was last week, not counting a few 12 inch snowstorms. It was the coldest week ever recorded in October, and it rained for 5 days straight, around the clock. No sun at all. This, after we had four months of relentless sunshine in a region with a record for more sunny days than Florida. Today, as I write this, the sky is a cloudless blue, but the solar homes are gone. The weather gods could have behaved better. I felt terrible for the kids down on the Mall all week but I'm sure their sunny spirits saved the day.

The houses are now headed back, on very large truck trailers, to their home universities where they will be on display (hopefully, in better weather) for the school year, after which most are sold and put to good use by housing developers, non-profits, or to be lived in.

We all win

The winner of the Decathlon this year was Team Germany from the University of Darmstadt. Houses came from Alberta, Ontario, Puerto Rico, and Madrid! The rest were from Ohio State, Iowa State, Missouri, Arizona, Louisiana, Wisconsin, Kentucky and Texas (Rice U.), Cornell, Boston U., Minnesota, California (Santa Clara), Illinois and Virginia Tech (see video tours of all the homes).

Two years ago, I watched the students erect their small solar city at Decathlon #3, sweating in brilliant sunshine, putting in 18 hour days to finish in time. Some of the teams were almost all women. The ladies constructing the U. of Texas house that year sported T-shirts that said, "What Starts Here Changes the World." They are right about that, and they will all be winners in life's decathlon as they go forth to change the world.

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