Solar Decathlon
Brightens Prospects
for Solar Power


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First Light

First Light. Photo courtesy of Paul Hillier.

The recent collapse of Solyndra, the much trumpeted, California-based, $500-million solar-panel company, seems to have cast a shadow over the prospect of solar-energy initiatives in the past few weeks. However, a visit to the 10-day Solar Decathlon 2011 last week at the National Mall overlooking the Washington Monument in Washington, DC, proved that the skepticism over the future of solar energy may be misplaced and short-lived.

The event began September 23 and concluded October 2, and throngs of people, old and young, were seen patiently waiting in lines in front of the nearly two dozen solar model homes, eager to learn about how they could cut their soaring utility bills using the different technologies on display.

First Light House

A unique feature of the First Light House is the use of polycrystalline solar panels. Photo courtesy of First Light.

"They're our future and we feel greatly encouraged about the bright prospect for our country when we come to events like this," said John Cable and Jocelyn Davis, a couple from Arlington, VA, both in their mid-60s, referring to the budding engineers and scientists who developed cost-effective solar energy projects. Most of the visitors interviewed shared their enthusiasm as well as their concern for the rising cost of living, widely believed to be caused in part by soaring energy costs. According to the Department of Energy (DOE) estimates, a typical American family spends about $2,000 annually on utility bills. In 2010 alone, homeowners spent $250 billion on energy.

Solving the Problem

To address the issue, DOE launched the biennial Solar Decathlon in 2002. The competition is aimed at challenging college students to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive.

The program is intended to educate student participants and the public about the many cost-saving opportunities presented by clean-energy products; demonstrate to the public the opportunities presented by cost-effective houses that combine energy-efficient construction and appliances with renewable energy systems that are available today; and provide participating students with unique training that prepares them to enter the nation's clean-energy workforce.

Different Models

This year, 19 teams and their model homes were chosen out of nearly 40 entries from around the world, through a rigorous selection process that stressed technologies that best blend affordability, consumer appeal, and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

The FlexHouse

The FlexHouse. Photo courtesy of South Florida University, Central Florida University, and Florida International University.

This year, the Decathlon's hottest draw was the model home developed by students from Victoria University, New Zealand. Called "First Light," it's an 800-sq-ft, one-bedroom home, costing $350,000, with large open living areas. The central section of the house is surrounded by glazing and functions as a bridge between the natural environment and the indoors. This is the heart of the design, reflecting a Kiwi lifestyle in which the outdoors, socializing, and entertaining are central to living.

"It's a solar-based technology using polycrystalline solar panels. They produce the electricity required to keep the home energy-efficient throughout the year," says Eli Nuttal, 24, the team leader, who is an architecture student.

Another unique feature of the house is the triple-glazed skylight illuminating the central section of the home. Sunlight penetrates the space to provide heat and light, bringing the outdoors in. A shading system has also been incorporated to allow for additional control and flexibility for the interior climate.

Unit-6

Unit-6. Photo courtesy of Old Dominion University and Hampton University.

Another model on display was called "FlexHouse," designed by students from South Florida University, Central Florida University, and Florida International University. It utilizes both a grid-connected photovoltaic array and a standard grid connection to provide its electric power. The grid-connected system eliminates the need for expensive storage and allows for a give and take from the power utilities.

"The result is net zero electrical use from the utility when averaged over the course of a year," claims Chris Zalapi, the team leader. He says the model is based on technology and design that focus on minimizing the use of air conditioning, especially for people living in Florida, known for its hot and humid climate. The 930-sq-ft home costs $340,000.

Yet another model, called "Unit-6," is a 971-sq.-ft house costing $330,000, was developed by engineering and architecture students from Old Dominion University and Hampton University, both in Virginia Beach, VA. Its design is based on a six-unit multifamily structure in which three units are stacked on either side of a shared utility circulation core. Its system is tied to the electrical grid and when it's producing electricity from the solar panels, it then pushes the energy back into the grid.

"The power produced during the summer from the solar panels will replenish the power used from the grid," says John Whitelow, 37, the team leader. "In the process, the energy cost will come down significantly."

Cost Factor

While the models look promising in terms of saving energy, the cost of building the homes could be a big obstacle.

Many of the model homes, including the three described here, are priced around $350,000. Organizers pointed out that teams aspiring to make it to the top could lose out due to cost, as affordability is one of the major criteria to win the competition.

All three team leaders acknowledged they could lose out because of the high cost but insisted that mass production of the homes would bring down the cost substantially.

Arshad Mahmud is an independent writer.

They’re our future and we feel greatly encouraged about the bright prospect for our country when we come to events like this.

John Cable and Jocelyn Davis, Arlington, VA

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October 2011

by Arshad Mahmud, ASME.org