The Solar Decathlon

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon began last week with an impressive display of energy saving homes on the National Mall in Washington D.C. This unique, biennial program – which runs through October 2, 2011 – challenges collegiate teams from around the world to design, build and operate solar- powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient and attractive. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends affordability, consumer appeal and design excellence with optimal energy production and maximum efficiency.

While the use of solar energy is a core component to each home, a common thread through many of the homes is sustainability – beyond solar energy. And sustainable ingenuity is found everywhere, from vertical purification plant walls to a modular constructed wetland.

All of the entries are visually stunning – both inside and outside the homes. One of the most unique entries is the SCI-Arc CalTech “Chip” home, which features an exterior that is wrapped in insulation created entirely from recycled denim. A few other highlights:

* The University of Maryland’s home features a constructed wetland that runs through the core of the home, filtering greywater for re-use, among many other functions.

* A build-it-yourself Passive Home from Team Belgium – it’s even expandable should you want to expand your family.

* Want some fresh parsley for your meal? Why not pick a fresh stalk from the green house wall in the kitchen (Middlebury College).

The homes share many high-tech similarities – almost “price of entry” amenities – which is amazing considering some of this technology didn’t exist just a few short years ago. Amenities and techniques such as daylighting, geothermal heating, bi-facial solar panels and LED lighting are found in most of these homes.

One final, yet critical, element tied throughout each of the homes is affordability. Consider the Parsons NS Stevens Empowerhouse, which attains a net-zero energy balance without incurring major upfront expenses or needing additional energy sources. With minimal PV panel power generation (4.5 kilowatts) the Empowerhouse is proof that achieving net-zero can be accomplished by instituting a sound energy efficiency strategy. What’s more, the home will actually be re-built and re-used for a family in Washington D.C. as part of a partnership Habitat for Humanity.

The team that reaches optimal energy production, maximizes efficiencies and combines design excellence with affordability takes home the top prize. But in reality, we’re the ones who take home the prize. For me, this program is less about science and more about the potential of making highly efficient, even net-zero homes a reality.

Hopefully programs and events like this will continue to improve energy-saving technologies and encourage broader promotion and acceptance of a less-is-more philosophy.

Visit the Solar Decathlon program page to take a first-hand look at each of the homes. It’s definitely worth a visit.

Article by Tim Laughlin, appearing courtesy Xcel Energy Blog.

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