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Solar Decathlon Comes To D.C.

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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Department of Energy's biennial Solar Decathlon kicked off Friday, with hundreds of students from across the country -- and even a few from around the globe -- competing to create the most practical solar-powered housing.

The contest, which runs through Oct. 2, includes 19 entries to be rated by a panel of judges on 10 criteria, including aesthetics, efficiency and, most recently, cost.

Solar Decathlon Director Richard King says he hopes the newest affordability target will make high-efficiency housing accessible to a broader population and bring more parity to the contest.

"It's easy to get the latest innovation, the best windows, the best solar cells and win the contest," King told HuffPost in an interview. "But when you have to do it affordably, it's more challenging to bring that innovation and that new technology into the event."

In 2009, the winning entry cost $800,000 to replicate, King told HuffPost, but most entrants for this year's competition fall below the $250,000 price range.

While the competition's houses can be built by students and on the cheap, the process that went into making them is far from amateur. Many colleges partnered with corporate sponsors and public relations firms to maximize funding as well as outreach.

A house the product of a collaboration between Caltech and the Southern California Institute of Architecture, for instance, took two years and roughly $1 million to build. With its quilted exterior (it's cheaper to insulate from the outside) and motion-sensitive lighting, the building has much to show for the efforts.

Meanwhile Purdue University had no fewer than half a dozen tour guides standing ready to show its entry. (When HuffPost asked one where the stiffest competition would come from, she said she hadn't left the building because she was running through her lines.)

Some houses have even taken on an element of civic involvement. Empowerhouse, the entry for Washington, D.C., was designed in partnership with Habitat for Humanity and the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development. Upon completion, the house will go east of the Anacostia River to a single mother of three. The price? A crisp $250,000.

Solar decathlon video captions courtesy of Planet Forward.

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