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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Nov/Dec 2002 : Happenings


Sunshine on the Mall
The Solar Decathlon brings a village-and a message-to Washington, DC.

By Penny S. Bonda, FASID


Harry Shimp gets it. So do the U.S. Department of Energy, the National Renewable Energy Lab, Home Depot, EDS, the American Institute of Architects and hundreds of students from 14 colleges and universities around the country. These are the folks who organized, sponsored, designed and constructed the first-ever Solar Decathlon; and Shimp, president and chief executive officer of BP Solar, put it best. “If you want to get noticed, camp out on the mall, the National Mall to be exact. You can’t get much more awareness than being right in front of the decision-makers.”

A temporary solar village, the Solar Decathlon spent 11 days from September 26 through October 6, 2002, in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, proving to Congress and other government officials that a renewable energy agenda is practical and affordable; that it can be done in an elegant way and that it will attract tens of thousands of people willing to stand in long lines to see how.

Organized as a competition and run under the direction of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), the event challenged 14 student teams to design, build and operate attractive and functional homes powered solely by the sun. The teams, from large state universities and tiny community colleges, competed for points in 10 contests ranging from design innovation and pleasing aesthetics to maintaining the primary systems of the house while using only solar energy. For example, each house demonstrated that it can supply all the energy necessary to heat water for bathing, laundry and dishwashing. They must also maintain thermal comfort through natural ventilation, mechanical heating and cooling and humidity control. The lighting must be elegant, of high quality and energy efficient, both during the day and at night. The teams were also challenged to produce power to feed the needs of a small home business and to generate enough extra energy to power a commercially available electric vehicle. The specifics of the requirements were detailed down to the number of towels that must be washed and the hours the TV must be on.

The 14 homes were as varied as the schools that built them and, in many cases, reflected the regions and sensibilities from where they came. The University of Delaware’s crisp pastel and white entry would be right at home on that state’s beaches as would the colorful and playful home from the University of Puerto Rico. Others, like those from Crowder College and the University of Missouri at Rolla, defy the popular conception of solar homes as “too weird” and look as though they could be plunked down just about anywhere.

Aesthetics, however, were not really the point of the Solar Decathlon, and each team’s approach to the energy challenges was unique although not consistently successful. Data on how well they were doing was collected via a wireless network donated by EDS throughout the event with constantly updated point totals posted on site and on the Internet. The competition was fierce and, as one student put it, “The numbers prove everything.” As a result, in an effort to conserve precious energy, visitors to the houses sometimes found them closed by the students as they saw their scores dropping in the rankings.

In the end, the team with the most points won—and the honor went to The University of Colorado at Boulder with the home that students “intentionally designed to be more like an every-day American home than a perfectly designed experimental solar house.” They’ve been cited for the excellence of their engineering designed around “an adaptable construction methodology for repeatable, site-specific housing that showcases renewable energy systems and environmentally sound building products.”

University of Virginia (UVA) took second place while Auburn University captured third. The UVA house was notable for its extensive use of salvaged materials—elements like copper cladding and wood reclaimed from shipping pallets. It scored the highest point total in the design and livability category. Auburn’s entry successfully combined traditional architecture with some of the most advanced solar technologies available. “We used solar megaphones,” Auburn’s team explained, “which are skylights filled with prisms that refract and amplify sunlight. Solar megaphones are the most efficient solar daylighting source available, and in our house, they sit high on the roof to help catch as much light as possible.”

The decathlon was the brainchild of DOE’s Richard King, who saw it as a way of demonstrating the enormous potential of solar energy—a clean and free resource that allows consumers to maintain their high living standards while reducing emissions and reliance on fossil fuels. Currently, only four percent of the energy that Americans consume comes from renewable sources; by using the home as a model, King viewed this event as a way to showcase solar’s capabilities—“that everyone’s rooftop has enough area to provide the energy needed for daily life.” The decathlon also proved that market-ready technologies already exist that consumers can use to power energy-efficient appliances and lighting, water heating, and space heating and cooling systems.

For students, the Solar Decathlon offered a unique hands-on experience not usually found in the classroom, plus the thrill of competition. University of Colorado students took note of the lessons learned. “The key lesson,” they said, “has been the extent to which we must operate as a team. While we have each excelled in our niche areas, we have learned that our team is greater than the sum of our individual parts. Finally, we have been surprised at the level of enthusiasm of everyone in Washington, DC. Boulder and the university can be insulating environments. The interest of the public, the wide eyes of the school children, and the receptiveness of the policymakers have helped to remind us that our own educational efforts are not so far removed from the mainstream after all.”

This 18-month effort has undoubtedly become the training ground for future architects, engineers and innovators in the budding alternative energy industry. The UVA team will, for example, permanently install its house as a faculty guesthouse on campus to be used as an ongoing research tool for engineering and architecture students. It will also serve as an educational resource for K-12 tours. Team members say that they want to teach the consumers of tomorrow about this type of living while they’re young.

As home to the National Center for Photovoltaics where the science of turning sunlight into electricity is ongoing, the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) was an obvious participant in the decathlon. Photovoltaics—a process by which solar energy is converted directly to electricity—are in large part what make solar energy work. NREL’s scientists are researching new and less expensive methods to advance the concept of “zero energy buildings” that produce nearly as much energy as they use. It is working with the nation’s homebuilders toward these goals and was pleased that a large contingent from the National Association of Home Builders toured the decathlon.

Among the major private sector sponsors of the decathlon was BP Solar, one of the world’s largest manufacturers—and users—of solar modules. As a BP subdivision, BP Solar represents the parent company’s recognition that 25 years from now the energy business will be different than it is today. It is also the very visible spearhead of its environmental program that includes providing electricity in the Philippines to islands in the Archipelago that have never had power to a schools program in Brazil, where it is equipping 1,100 rural schoolhouses with telecommunications. To CEO Shimp, participation in the Solar Decathlon is one more way BP is changing the lives of people all over the world.

“What we like about the Solar Decathlon is that it shows that with the right engineering approach, solar can be cost-effective even without government subsidies,” he said. “We’re particularly effective where the locality is transmission grid-constrained, which is about a third of the U.S. today. For example, in the California brownouts and blackouts of a couple years ago, it wasn’t the fact that they couldn’t buy electricity; they couldn’t get it to where they needed it. That was the problem.” (See sidebar for more on Shimp and BP Solar.)

Each sponsor entered the project with its own goals. The Home Depot, who supplied many energy saving products to the teams, said it is committed to providing customers with information on energy conservation, reducing energy bills and finding simple solutions for the homeowner’s energy-related projects. EDS, a leading provider of information technology services, supplied end-to-end wireless capabilities to the solar village and supplied the network infrastructure and Internet access, not only to the teams, but also to the terminals installed on the mall for visitors to use to get the latest contest information.

George Douglas, NREL’s on-site spokesman, believes that one of the main lessons of the Solar Decathlon learned by the students, sponsors, homebuilders and the general public is that solar energy is not an either/or, that every little bit—even 20 percent—is OK. “We showed that lifestyles don’t have to change. We demonstrated the seamlessness—people don’t know where the energy is coming from when they flip the switch.”

The following text includes excerpts from an interview with the candid president and CEO of BP Solar.

“We’ve demonstrated for a long time that photovoltaics are a very, very effective technology. In fact, it’s probably the ideal technology. It doesn’t require fuel and it doesn’t require maintenance. You put it up and it works for 25 to 50 years; you don’t need to worry about it.

“The big economic issue has been on the grid where you’re competing against very low-cost, coal-fired or gas-fired central power plants and non-maintenance advantages aren’t as strong. So there needs to be a different incentive, such as the various state subsidies available in California, Illinois, New York, New Jersey or Hawaii. If you live in one of those five states, the technology is economically viable and solar makes sense right now today.

“We want to become a fast-growing, economically viable industry; in other words, making enough return on the investment people put into us that they want to keep investing in us. But we have to create a different product offering before we’re really going to be successful. If you’re a consumer in those five states in the United States, then solar makes sense. But if you’re in the other 45 states, it doesn’t yet unless you employ some of the design concepts that you saw down on the mall. Those were very holistic designs and not just about photovoltaics.
Those homes combined passive and active energy systems that made very, very effective use of the available power.

“We’ve started to work with some very large companies—Volkswagen and Home Depot, for example, to install photovoltaics systems on their buildings. What we find when we talk to potential customers like these is that the renewable energy piece doesn’t have to have a great internal rate of return. This isn’t a barn-burner of an investment, but it shouldn’t lose you money. So just on the pure economic side, if you can at least get into the black on net present value calculations, you can then start realizing all of the soft benefits such as distinguishing this particular store, or car dealership, or whatever it is, from the competition and make a statement that is not only personal, but also that appeals to potential customers.

“Renewable energy is something that we can’t afford not to do. We can either do it intelligently and phase it in, or if the world runs out of hydrocarbons or it gets too warm, we’ll have to have a crash course, which is much more costly. The question then is: Are we going to be a major player in that change or will we be a marginal player? There are some things that favor photovoltaics and some things, frankly, that don’t. I think photovoltaics will come out pretty well in the long run, but we have a lot of work to do.”


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