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A. Siegel

A. Siegel

Posted: October 8, 2009 10:55 AM

Racing for the Sun: Energy COOL Solar Decathlon Back on The National Mall

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Being an EcoGeek is becoming ever more fashionable. And, increasingly, there are events where EcoGeek's can gather in style.

Every two years, for two weeks, a village appears on the National Mall providing a window on possibilities for a sustainable future powered by the sun.

The Solar Decathlon is a biennial, ever-cool event, pitting colleges and universities across the nation in ten contests that "center on the ways we use energy in our daily lives."

The Solar Decathlon is a competition in which teams of college and university students compete to design, build, and operate the most attractive, effective, and energy-efficient solar powered house.

The fourth Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon comes to Washington, DC, is on the Mall, with the teams racing to finish up last touches before opening to public tomorrow (open to the public 9-13 and 15-18 Octobe)r.


The contest is quite focused:

The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon challenges 20 university-led teams from around the world in 10 contests to design, build, and operate the most attractive, energy-efficient, solar-powered house. Solar Decathlon houses must power all the home energy needs of a typical family using only the power of the sun. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends aesthetics and modern conveniences with maximum energy production and optimal efficiency.

What is the basic criteria?
To compete, the teams must design and build energy-efficient homes that are powered exclusively by the sun. The homes must be attractive and easy to live in. They must maintain a comfortable temperature, provide attractive and adequate lighting, power household appliances for cooking and cleaning, power home electronics, and provide hot water. These houses must also power an electric vehicle to meet household transportation needs.

Walking through the Solar Decathlon, it is hard not to have many "I want that" moments or think "I could live in this" (actually, I want to live in this). Wandering around, the "oohs" and "ahs" of attendees, at all ages, are constant. (My children, for example, definitely want to go back again, having been to the past two.) If you can, this is an Energy COOL must do event.

Now, this event could well be different than the previous three as, to put it politely, the White House is a bit more engaged and supportive of the core principles and objectives of the Decathlon.


There are many reasons for the DOE's support to the Solar Decathlon from encouraging "young people to pursue careers in science and engineering, helping the U.S. maintain its technological competitive edge" to education about renewable energy and energy efficiency (for both the students and the general public). The Decathlon also creates requirements to break down stove-pipes, as different academic disciplines work together in ways that typically doesn't occur in the academic environment. This contributes to a larger 'breaking stove-pipes' issue:

To promote an integrated, or "whole building design," approach to new construction. This approach differs from the traditional design-build process, because the design team considers the interactions of all building components and systems to create a more comfortable building, save energy, and reduce environmental impact.

Buildings are the largest single energy user and largest source of greenhouse gas emissions -- more integrated approaches, such as driven by the Solar Decathlon, could help us address that issue while providing us homes and buildings that are more pleasing, healthier, and more productive.

Now, lets take a moment on one specific objective:

To help move solar energy technologies to the marketplace faster. The Solar Decathlon helps accelerate the research and development of energy-efficiency and energy production technologies.

The Iowa State University team has worked hard, amid its efforts addressing the building envelope, to address the issue of doors' thermal characteristics.

They "initiated an alliance between Iowa's Pella Corporation and Acutemp Thermal Systems to manufacture doors with vacuum-insulation, providing an 'R' value of 50. Such doors in an affordable price range are not available in the U.S., so the hope is that they will turn into a new product for the companies."

To have an affordable, mass-market available door series with insulation values in the range of R-50 would, near literally, transform that segment of the building market. This is a higher insulation level than one normally finds in ceilings (is above the code requirements, which are R-38 (or the equivalent of 38 inches of wood), and recommended R-45 in my area, for example). Doors with R-50 are Passivhaus levels where we can drive down the energy requirements for heating and cooling the structure to, essentially, zero.


Other houses have similiar partnerships, for example Team Boston's Curio House has leading edge "Heat glass" technology, in a traditional-looking window, that captures low-angle winter sun energy in an embedded thermal mass to provide warmth throughout cold New England nights. These windows actually serve to heat the home, moving beyond the concept of "R values" which turns on the head the traditional problem that windows can account for significant amounts of a home or buildings heat loss. Penn State's Natural Fusion has a Sunnovations solar hot water system which doesn't require electricity in its operations. And, so on ...

All 20 entrants have Energy COOL features, will create "ooh and ah" moments, and will have elements saying "I'd like to have that."

Yes, this is the "solar" decathlon, but this is far from just about active solar power (whether electrical or thermal) and passive solar design, but the whole building design. And, that design is not just energy and physical environmental focused but also aesthetic qualities: what is the beauty? How livable is the space?

The Solar Decathlon is a chance to take a peek about (quite achievable) futures, in sustainability and quality of life terms. It also is a window on the enthusiasm and capability of students from around the world, working together from many disciplines to produce homes that could help spark changed building practices in the United States and globally.

If interested, there is the "where are they now?" about the 2007 Solar Decathlon homes.

Some other discussions of the 2009 Solar Decathlon:


Some write-ups of the 2007 Solar Decathlon:

 

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