Solar Decathlon Shines on the Mall This Week

Solar DeCathalon
We may write all the time about our developing neighborhoods, but one D.C. block is getting super-developed as we speak. Stroll down to the National Mall between today and October 20 and you'll find yourself in the middle of the Solar Village, where twenty universities have descended on the strip with their brilliant innovations costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, to compete in Solar Decathlon 2007. The entire event is open to the public with tours, workshops, and awards ceremonies for the most promising and practical showings.Developed by the Department of Energy five years ago, and now part of Pres. Bush's 2006 Solar America Initiative, the Solar Decathlon challenges engineering and architecture students to create "the most livable, energy-efficient, completely solar-powered house." Each team is given a grant of $100,000 -- though most projects use significantly more, raising the rest themselves through gifts and fundraising -- and two years to design and build their project. The teams arrived in D.C. last week to begin assembling their 800 sq. ft. units, outfitted with technology that allows the house to produce as much or more energy than it uses.A true decathlon, the teams compete in a battery of ten tests for certain points. Each house must be well-rounded to score high, not only maintaining a successful energy balance, but also by being a truly practical house that's easy and comfortable to live in. A new trial this year tests market viability, urging teams to think about the real people who might want to buy such a home. And not content to leave the competition at the garage door, more points are awarded based on how many miles they can drive their electric car, using "leftover" energy generated by the house.

Before visiting the solar village, the teams want you to focus on the following:

>> Approximately 86 percent of the energy consumed world-wide comes from fossil fuels.
>> The U.S. has less than 5 percent of the world's population, but uses 25 percent of the world's energy.
>> A typical U.S. family spends around $1,500 a year on utility bills.

With that in mind, the Director of the Solar Decathlon, Richard King, told DCist:

The Solar Decathlon has three goals: first, to educate students, professionals and the general public that energy efficiency pays off and that solar energy really works; second, to support a new generation of energy and building engineers that will help transform the way we build and power homes; and third, to be a complement to the Solar America Initiative, which seeks to make solar energy cost competitive with conventional forms of electricity by 2015.

2005 entry by University of Missouri

With prior competitions in 2002 and 2005, this year's batch of 20 teams is the biggest yet. Reigning champion -- of both Decathlons -- University of Colorado remains the Goliath to beat. Despite past successes, team member Chad Corbin told us they're embracing the events' innovative ideal and taking a "radically different" approach this year. Inside their house you'll find their secret weapon: a "core" that runs along the central axis of the house, containing the mechanical, electric, and plumbing systems, along with the utility-heavy kitchen and bathrooms. The genius? Engineering the essential components into one -- and this is the key word -- removable core unit means that it can be manufactured en masse and shipped anywhere relatively easily and quickly. Buyers can then design their own home around it, to their own personal tastes. Even better, the unit can be sent to disaster areas, allowing residential housing to be built up quickly where it's needed most, in areas where gas and electricity may be unavailable.

One important aspect of these houses is that, although they may include incredible feats of architecture and engineering, the designers don't focus as much on creating new inventions as they do using easily accessible, off-the-shelf products in more efficient ways. Meaning, you might just come home with a few ideas to use in your house right now, particularly with the slew of accompanying workshops, such as "Energy Efficiency for the Homeowner." In fact, the houses aren't usually torn apart as businesses seek to patent items, but instead, put on display for as many people as possible. Colorado's and Carnegie Mellon's houses have already been slated for permanent display, and the 2005 entry by the Universidad Politécnica de Madrid will be on display in Beijing during the 2008 Summer Olympics.

While Team Colorado may be in it to win it, Corbin notes that they "don’t really win anything. This is all about educating people and changing habits and minds. Very few [team members] get compensation or school credit. We do it to show people what we can do with today’s technology. You can produce as much energy as you use."

The Solar Decathlon takes place on the National Mall until October 20. The opening ceremony for the Decathlon is Friday at 10 a.m. Public tours of the houses will run 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on the weekend, and 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. during the weekdays. Workshops will also be available during certain hours. See the entire schedule of events here.

Images from the 2005 Solar Decathlon, courtesy the event web site.

(Via DCist.)