The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon challenges 20 collegiate teams to design, build and operate solar-powered houses that are affordable, energy-efficient and appealing to consumers. The houses function like any average home, but with a twist.
While they must maintain comfortable indoor conditions, supply energy to household appliances for cooking, cleaning, hygiene and entertainment, they also produce as much or more energy than they consume. The winner of the competition is the team that best blends these traits.
The Decathlon is an international competition that has taken place biennially since 2002. Richard King, director, created the Decathlon to increase the consumer appeal of solar energy.
Competing students build the houses on their home campuses and subsequently break down, ship and rebuild them on the National Mall for public viewing, performance testing and judging. This year, however, marks the first Solar Decathlon Europe, the awards ceremony of which took place in Madrid, Spain on June 27. The Spanish Ministry of Housing reported that 191,000 people visited the Villa Solar in Madrid.
The competition encourages collaboration and teamwork between college students of all disciplines. In addition to architects and engineers, MBA students help fundraise and manage the team, and interior designers and horticulturalists contribute to the home’s aesthetic attributes.
The top three placing universities this year were Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University for their entry “Lumenhaus”; University of Applied Sciences Rosenheim for “Ikaros” and Stuttgart University of Applied Sciences for “home+.” The University of Florida finished eighth with the online people’s choice award.
The winning homes share something in common with the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED third-party certification program. LEED also promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability by recognizing performance in five key areas: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality.
According to DOE Under Secretary Kristina M. Johnson, buildings constitute 40 percent of U.S. energy consumption, with residential buildings claiming about half of that consumption. “Energy literacy is so important for the public because we estimate that, by just changing our behavior, we can reduce our energy consumption by 20-25 percent without reducing the quality of our lifestyle,” she says. “[The Decathlon is important] in energy literacy […] because it demonstrates how we can achieve this in something real and tangible.”
“There were a lot of challenges,” says David Scherien, Solar Decathlon alumnus. “We pushed through because a) we had each other, we really believed in each other, and b) we really believed that we were working on something important.”
Another function of the Decathlon is to teach and inspire the public. “A key takeaway for us from working with the technology was that we must demonstrate to the public and to ourselves what is viable today,” Scherien says. “What can we deploy today that is going to have a positive impact on the world?”