09/30/2011 05:25 pm ET Updated Nov 30, 2011

At Solar Decathlon, College Eco-Stars Reveal True Future of Solar

Our SmartPower staff recently ventured across the National Mall to visit the 2011 U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, a sustainable building competition among teams of college students from across the country. We went to the Decathlon expecting to see some pretty cool houses powered by rooftop solar panels and equipped with some fancy efficiency gadgets.

What we did not expect to find was completely original technology and superb architectural design (and an inexplicable urge to buy a sub-1,000-square-foot home built buy a bunch of college students). But these were no ordinary college students! These were Solar Decathletes.

Solar Decathletes are students who, instead of partying at the beach or making money at temporary jobs, decide to help design, engineer and assemble solar-powered homes in their spare time (including school holidays). Many of them didn't even receive college credit! They are the ultimate eco-stars -- self-inspired individuals who are shaping the next generation of energy leaders.

From the University of Maryland's liquid desiccant waterfall, to Middlebury College's in-kitchen garden, to the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign's solar awning, many design elements at the Decathlon were completely new to me. Not to mention Purdue University's biowall, the University of Tennessee's color-changing LED mood lighting, and Appalachian State University's poplar bark siding. But I expect they will soon become popular home and general building features, since they were just that cool -- and just that innovative.

After all, future innovation is what the Decathlon is really about. The Department of Energy understands that young people are the vanguard of our clean energy economy. It's great to see these efforts and enthusiasm being encouraged on a national stage.

The time and ingenuity that these Decathletes put into their work gives me confidence that the energy leaders of tomorrow will be the responsible, forward thinking and efficiency-minded sort that we need to fulfill our country's energy demands while making the world a better, more inhabitable place.

In case you couldn't make it out to the event, my team took some pictures of the coolest efficiency features. Visit our Facebook photo album and let us know which design was your fan favorite!

And while you're at it, visit the America's Next Eco-Star Facebook page. My guess is that you know someone from your college who rivals the passion, dedication and ingenuity of the Decathletes. Why not nominate them to become America's Next Eco-Star?

Brian Keane is the President of SmartPower, a non-profit marketing organization funded by private foundations to help build the clean energy marketplace by helping the American public become smarter about their energy use.