One of 20 solar-powered homes on display at the Mall in Washington D.C. This one is from the University of Kentucky. Credit: Mike MiskellyI was in Silver Spring, Maryland visiting my family last week, and had a chance to visit, with my sister Anne Marie and her boyfriend Mike, the 2009 Solar Decathlon. I’m used to seeing some unusual things on the Mall in Washington, DC—our nations backyard—but was quite impressed by the 20 solar-powered homes arrayed there last Saturday. Students from all over the world designed and built the houses over a two-year period, then disassembled them, transported them to the Mall, and put them back together.

The Solar Decathlon judges these houses in, of course, ten categories.


There are some interesting differences this year, compared to the last contest in 2007. Instead of charging a plug-in hybrid vehicle, as they did in 2007, teams now have to power a home entertainment system. The sponsors of the contest realized that electronic devices, like TVs, make up an ever-bigger share of a typical home’s electricity draw. That’s happening right now, while a plug hybrid car in most every driveway or garage is a thing of the future. A second new feature is that today’s solar houses are connected to the grid. The category “net metering” was not in the last contest. Teams earn points by sending more energy, created by sunlight, to the grid than they use from the grid. The ultimate goal for those of us the home performance field is that all homes become “net-zero” energy homes, or “net-positive,” meaning that the produce as much or more than the grid supplies them over the course of a year. A big problem with solar energy, as well as another renewable source, wind, is that power is created intermittently. Energy storage is necessary, and it is often expensive and not very efficient. With net-zero energy homes, the grid itself provides the storage capacity. When I lived in a Catholic religious community (Holy Cross Priests), the economics of community life were simple—take what you need and give what you can. Same for a net-zero energy house.

I wanted to take a look at the Team Germany (Technische Universität Darmstadt) home, the winners in 2007, but the house was in the process of being judged. Judges don’t announce when they will be visiting a house and which category they will be judging. Teams must keep, for example, the shower water in their solar homes at a precise temperature and flow rate all during the contest. No one knows when a judge will come to the door with a thermometer and flow gauge.

We walked by every house, and stopped at two—with the smallest lines snaking there way out front. (The Solar Decathlon expected as many as 250,000 visitors this year—looks like they made it.) We took a tour of the Iowa State and the University of Kentucky homes. I was partial to the simplicity and the day-lighting scheme of the Iowa house, which made use of simple pine siding and clerestory windows. Mike was more impressed with the Kentucky house, which had some pretty nifty fold up furniture and other creative uses of space. A member of the Kentucky team told us they were inspired by Shaker furniture. The house had wooden chairs, designed in Kentucky and made in Italy, that folded up to be hung on the walls, with decorative features that makes them pleasing to the eye. The Iowa house was made specifically with an older couple in mind. It has a simple layout and it is easy to move around in. Both the Iowa and Kentucky houses had big open showers in the bathrooms, with tiled floors and drainage. Energy efficiency and luxurious (though low-flow) showers can go hand in hand!

As of this writing (Wednesday), Team California, (Santa Clara University and California College of the Arts) is in the lead, with Illinois (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) in second, Team Germany in third, and Team Ontario/BC (University of Waterloo, Ryerson University, and Simon Fraser University) in fourth. The categories of Net Metering, Engineering, and Lighting Design have yet to be judged.

Updates soon!

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Solar Decathlon 2009 30 April,2013Jim Gunshinan


Jim Gunshinan

Jim Gunshinan is the editor of Home Energy, the magazine of sustainable home building and renovation.

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