On your marks, get set, generate!

September 16, 2009

In less than a month, teams from 20 universities from around the world will gather on the National Mall in Washington DC for the 2009 Solar Decathlon, hosted mainly by the Department of Energy.

In the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, where lawmakers are mulling first-ever U.S. carbon dioxide regulations, teams will compete to build and operate small homes that derive all their energy from the sun’s infinite supply.

Some teams to watch are Cornell University and its “Silo House,” with three circular rooms, Virginia Tech and its Lumenhaus, which focuses on channeling natural light, and Team Germanyfrom Technische Universitat Darmstadt, which won the 2007 decathlon with a high-tech design.

Another team to watch is Rice University, which will feature its Zerow House, a no-nonsense solar house meant to be affordable to low-income families.  (The name combines Zero and Row, since row houses are a Houston icon.) Click on the YouTube link below to see a short tour of the Rice house narrated by Brent Houchens, a mechanical engineering professor at Rice.

Several different strategies will be in play during the contest. Some teams will seek to wow the judges by deploying the most high-tech solar arrays, appliances and interior designs. Team Germany is fielding another high-concept entry this year, and its stated philosophy is to “push the envelope with as many new technologies as possible.”

That strategy is evident in looking at the team’s modernistic 2-story cube, which is almost totally covered with PV panels and can churn out over 11 kilowatts of electric generation, more than enough to satisfy the house’s needs. Others, like Rice’s Zerow House, are focusing on affordability and livability — which could be a wise strategy in these lean financial times.

All the entries will demonstrate a concept known as “smart metering,” where a home’s power usage meter can spin both forwards and backwards and keep track of power sent onto the utility grid. Residents would get a check from their utility if they generated more electricity than they used. Most U.S. residential meters are not capable of the feat currently, but some U.S. utilities are warming to the idea.

Teams will also compete in feats of solar competency meant to prove their prowess not only in architectural design and affordability, but also everyday household tests that any homemaker will appreciate. Those include the Hot Water contest — using solar collectors to heat 15 gallons of water to 110 degrees Fahrenheit in 10 minutes or less, and the Appliances contest, which includes the dreaded towel test – washing and drying 10 loads of laundry during a week.

So why have Americans been slow to adopt solar technology when other countries like Germany have gone for them whole hog? Are more government incentives needed or is it a matter of lifestyle? Are Americans willing to sacrifice comfort and convenience to slash their carbon dioxide emissions and save energy?

Photo credit: REUTERS/Chris Baltimore (Zerow House in Houston)

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Are Americans willing to sacrifice comfort and convenience to slash CO2 emissions, most are not.

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