The Past and Future of the Solar Decathlon
Since the first U. S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon in 2002, thousands of college students from around the world have designed and created houses that are efficient at both collecting sunlight and converting it into usable energy.
Already, teams are hard at work for the next competition this October in Irvine, California, where the public will be able to tour the solar-powered houses free of charge to see innovative designs and learn how to save energy and money in their own homes.
The first Solar Decathlon was held on the National Mall in Washington in 2002. Since 2005, it has been held in a U.S. city every two years and also has expanded worldwide, with competitions staged in Europe in 2010, 2012 and 2014 and in China in 2013.
This December, an event will be staged in Latin America for the first time, said Richard King, director of the Solar Decathlon.
“The newest competition in Cali, Colombia, South America, will emphasize affordable homes for tropical climates and higher-density solutions to sustainable housing,” King said.
See a selection of homes from previous Solar Decathlons in the slideshow below:
Visiting one of the Solar Decathlon events, it is difficult not to be inspired by the innovative, beautiful, energy-efficient houses, and by the students who give tours of their houses. The student designers and builders have impressive knowledge of the mechanics of their houses and can explain all the systems and considerations behind the design decisions to visitors. All that helps make Solar Decathlons an opportunity for the public to see the variety of prefabricated building methods, systems, materials, and techniques that can be used to build more sustainable, healthy, and efficient homes.
Over the years, the houses have improved dramatically, King said.
“The first competition in 2002 set the benchmark,” he said. “In 2003, a new set of university teams studied the 2002 houses and improved the designs for the 2005 competition. Then a new set of university teams studied those designs and made further improvements. With each successive competition we see new innovations. “
At the 2002 event, houses were not attached to the grid and had to provide all of their own energy. Since Solar Decathlon 2009, houses have been connected to a temporary, ground-laid village “micro-grid” to demonstrate how houses that are grid-connected can give excess energy back to the public utility grid.
At the first event, electric cars that needed to be powered by the team’s house were provided to each team. (Points were accumulated based on how many miles each team could drive on their energy.) A similar “commuting contest” has returned in 2015, requiring teams to power not only their houses but also an electric car.
Affordability, an important aspect of home construction in light of recent global economic struggles, was added as a requirement four years ago.
“Probably the biggest change to the competition occurred in 2011 when the designs were required to be more affordable, with construction [costs of] $ 250,000 or less,” King said. “This new rule challenges the teams to design houses that are innovative yet cost-effective.”
The houses also must demonstrate functionality, with students cooking meals in homes that provide their own heat and cooling as well as hot water for showers and laundry — all by using the electricity generated by their solar photovoltaic and solar hot water systems.
The 2015 U.S. competition will include 10 contests: architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications, affordability, comfort zone, appliances, home life, energy balance and commuting.
Since the first competition in 2002, 130 collegiate teams have participated in Solar Decathlons. The houses built for the events are now located throughout the country and around the world. Those houses continue to serve numerous educational, conservational, and community-oriented functions, and the program could have an even wider impact.
“The more than 2,500 students participating in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2015 will go out into the world, get jobs, and I believe will change the world,” King said. “Solar and energy-efficient houses will become the norm in our near future, not the distant future.”
Where to from here for the Solar Decathlon?
“To date, the competition focuses the design challenge on ‘How do you design a fully sustainable house?’ To some, that is too narrow,” King said. “Sustainability involves so much more than just the house. Water, transportation, waste recycling, and land use are just some of the other important factors that must be included. To raise the bar even higher, a competition to design sustainable houses that will be built permanently in a model sustainable community somewhere in the U.S. has intriguing merit.”
For further information, visit www.solardecathlon.gov.