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
cant 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 Delawares crisp pastel and white entry would be right
at home on that states 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 teams 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 wonand 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. Theyve 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
materialselements like copper cladding and wood reclaimed from shipping
pallets. It scored the highest point total in the design and livability
category. Auburns entry successfully combined traditional architecture
with some of the most advanced solar technologies available. We
used solar megaphones, Auburns 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
The decathlon was the brainchild of DOEs Richard King, who saw it
as a way of demonstrating the enormous potential of solar energya
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 solars capabilitiesthat everyones
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 theyre 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. Photovoltaicsa
process by which solar energy is converted directly to electricityare
in large part what make solar energy work. NRELs 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 nations 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 worlds largest manufacturersand usersof solar
modules. As a BP subdivision, BP Solar represents the parent companys
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. Were 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 wasnt the fact that they couldnt
buy electricity; they couldnt 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 homeowners 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, NRELs 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 biteven 20 percentis OK. We showed
that lifestyles dont have to change. We demonstrated the seamlessnesspeople
dont know where the energy is coming from when they flip the switch.
|A CONVERSATION WITH HARRY
||The following text includes excerpts from an interview
with the candid president and CEO of BP Solar.
Weve demonstrated for a long time that photovoltaics are
a very, very effective technology. In fact, its probably the
ideal technology. It doesnt require fuel and it doesnt
require maintenance. You put it up and it works for 25 to 50 years;
you dont need to worry about it.
The big economic issue has been on the grid where youre
competing against very low-cost, coal-fired or gas-fired central power
plants and non-maintenance advantages arent 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 were really going to be
successful. If youre a consumer in those five states in the
United States, then solar makes sense. But if youre in the other
45 states, it doesnt 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.
Weve started to work with some very large companiesVolkswagen
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 doesnt have to have a great
internal rate of return. This isnt a barn-burner of an investment,
but it shouldnt 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 cant 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, well 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 dont. I think photovoltaics will come out pretty
well in the long run, but we have a lot of work to do.