Competition heats up to find the best innovation in solar powered homes
The Solar Decathlon is a biannual event where 20 teams from around the world construct energy efficient homes utilizing green building techniques at the West Potomac Park on the National Mall in Washington DC. The Solar Decathlon encourages innovation in the design of solar-powered homes. An initiative of the US Department of Energy, the Decathlon is intended to encourage excellence in the fields of design, affordability and energy efficiency. During the competition, schools that offer courses in green building technology pit their best solar home designs against each other for the sought after top prize. This year’s 19 homes (15 US and 4 international contestants) include sheep insulation, edible walls and iPad apps. The homes must produce as much energy as they consume and provide pleasantly liveable spaces a family of 6, all for under $300 000.
The purpose of the Decathlon is twofold; the first is to create awareness of (and educate the public about) solar energy, green building technology and the benefits of creating clean-energy homes. It also provides students with a unique educational experience, hands-on training and an opportunity to create innovative home designs. Many of the home plans are sold to developers after the Decathlon and the homes themselves are reconstructed on campus to serve as educational tools for upcoming students or sold. Habitat for Humanity bought the Parson’s Empowerhouse and donated it to a single mother.
The University of Maryland is one of the front runners in the race for 2011 Decathlon honours. Their Watershed home not only saves on energy with a solar array, it also saves water by collecting runoff rainwater. Watershed also focuses on landscaping; a green roof improves energy efficiency and a modular wetland filters grey water from the dishwasher, shower and laundry. The home features an ‘edible wall’ where veggies are grown for the true locavore, and a picturesque waterfall provides humidity control.
This year’s decathlon holds other surprising revelations. A new target construction aspect was added to this year’s competition where homes would receive extra points for capping construction costs at $250 000. This restriction was used to show how the cost of solar energy has made energy-efficient homes more affordable. As solar technologies improve, so does the cost of solar panel installations. Both the Empower house (Parson’s School of New Design and Steven’s Institute of Technology) and INhome (Purdue University) built their homes for less than $250, 000.
Currently in the top three is Ohio State University. Their enCORE home provides cutting edge technology with a flat-plate solar thermal collector that works with a water heater to improve energy efficiency. Their unique 86 m² abode focuses on living spaces for families and its clever design offers the same functionality as a much bigger home. A thin-film 8-kW system provides the home’s renewable energy.
The Canadian Team from the University of Calgary currently occupy 10th place (fear not, the final scores are not yet in). Inspired by the tipis of the Treaty 7 native peoples of Southern Alberta, the TRTL (Technological Residence, Traditional Living) looks to the sun as a source of light and energy. The home is designed according to a holistic philosophy where it is seen as part of the greater natural ecosystem. The house, which focuses on tradition and sustainability, is equipped with an 8.3 kW photovoltaic system able to withstand Alberta’s winter weather. It’s impressive 93% optimal efficiency ensures a constant energy supply.
With this commitment to design and development, the US government is clearing the path for innovation in renewable energy. As solar energy gains a foothold in the international energy trade, it is design and technology that will keep Canada and the US in the market and allow them to compete against that behemoth of energy production, China.
Photosynthesis is one of nature’s most efficient methods of producing energy. Solar engineers at the American Chemical Association have finally succeeded in duplicating this technology and have developed a silicone leaf, the size of a playing card, which is able to split water molecules into oxygen and hydrogen. The leaf is placed into a water source and exposed to sunlight. The device uses solar energy to split the water molecules. The hydrogen and oxygen are stored for use as fuel sources.