Solar Decathlon Review, day 1: Market Appeal

by Matt Bushey, September 28, 2011


I just returned from the Solar Decathlon in Washington DC, where 19 teams of college and university students are competing to design and build the best energy-efficient house powered by the sun.  Each school has constructed their home on the mall, a net-zero building between 600 and 1,000 square feet.



This is the fifth US Department of Energy Solar Decathlon, and there are a few noticeable differences since it first started in 2002.  The biggest change is the location.  Previously located on the main stretch of the National Mall, under the shadow of the Washington Monument, the event this year was relocated to a slightly more remote location, on the edge of the Tidal Basin near the FDR Memorial.  (The Park Service claimed the construction vehicles were destroying the grass. Jeesh!)  But being off the beaten path didn’t seem to do anything to keep the crowds away, as long lines began forming by early afternoon on this overcast Saturday.
The other major changes to this year’s Solar Decathlon have to do with the structure of the competition itself.  Each house is measured or judged in the following 10 categories:
  • Architecture
  • Market Appeal
  • Engineering
  • Communications
  • Affordability
  • Comfort Zone
  • Hot Water
  • Appliances
  • Home Entertainment
  • Energy Balance 
It seems the Department of Energy has an agenda this year to spread the message that going ‘green’ is affordable and within reach, so they’ve tweaked the rules a bit to appeal to the skeptical American homeowner.  
One of the students on site explained to me that at the 2009 Solar Decathlon, the winning German team spent $1.2 million on their house, covering every possible surface with PVs to maximize their energy production.   Up until now, students were rewarded for producing surplus energy beyond net-zero.  Each team was given an electric car to drive around town on the surplus energy they produced, racking up miles and points.
In response to the excessive spending, a few changes were made that alter the focus of the event.  First off, a new category was added this year: Affordability.
Each house is assessed by a construction estimator, and if the total cost comes in below $250,000, the team is awarded the full 100 points in that category.  As the cost goes up, the number of points are reduced, down to zero points awarded for a cost of over $600,000.
In addition, there are no longer any rewards for producing surplus energy beyond that which the houses consume.  At previous Decathlons, the houses were off-the-grid, so each home relied on a large bank of batteries to store extra energy.  This year, there were no batteries in sight.  A miniature utility grid was constructed on site, and no additional points were awarded for energy produced beyond net-zero.
Closely related to affordability is “Market Appeal”.  In this category, each team determines who their target market is, and their house is judged on its livability, constructability, and “curb appeal”. 
One of the most often asked questions is where the house will be when the competition ends.  One of the teams chose to leverage the affordability aspect and design their house for a family in need through Habitat for Humanity.  The Empowerhouse is a joint venture of Parsons the New School for Design and Stevens Institute of Technology.
Another school, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has designed their house as a rapid-response emergency solution for areas affected by natural disasters.  The Re-homecan be deployed quickly as an affordable, self-powered source of shelter for those left homeless.
The most unique approach I found to market appeal was from the City College of New York.  Their Solar Roofpod is designed to be placed atop an existing mid-rise urban building, taking advantage of underutilized roof space and feeding energy to its host building below.  
But enough about affordability and market appeal.  Let’s talk about what we really look for in the Solar Decathlon:  technological innovation, creative solutions, and new products that have been exhaustively researched and fully vetted by passionate students out to change the world.  Big solutions to the big problem of global climate change.
Tomorrow I will share some of these new products and creative strategies that I found at the Solar Decathlon for making a better net-zero solar powered home.

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