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(Never too late for some) Lessons Learned from the 2011 DOE Solar Decathlon

Posted on | August 31, 2015 | No Comments

(Originally posted December 12, 2011)

There is a village, once every two years, where you can not only see, but take a tour of, 20 of the world’s most technologically advanced and energy efficient high-performance homes.  This village is not, as you might imagine, at Epcot Center (although who doesn’t love a spin through Spaceship Earth) or at the highly-publicized World’s Fairs.  This magical village appears on the National Mall in Washington, DC, for the US Department of Energy’s biennial Solar Decathlon.

Started in 2002, the Solar Decathlon was founded by the DOE to demonstrate the potential for solar energy to power single-family homes.  What it has evolved into, in the five competitions since then, is a showcase for innovation, ingenuity, and collaboration in the design, engineering, and development of high-performance homes.  Every Decathlon, up to 20 college-based teams are invited to design a house, transport it to the National Mall, and then build it in the “Solar Village”, where teams participate in 10 contests for up to 100 points each.  The team with the most points at the conclusion of the competition period wins the overall Decathlon.  Each of the teams took a unique approach to their home’s design, selecting theoretical clients and partnering with manufacturers and vendors to develop starkly different solutions to the challenge of creating a net-zero energy home on the Mall.  

So why does the Solar Decathlon matter to the residential energy efficiency industry?  First and foremost, because the teams are trying to design net-zero energy homes, it is much more cost-effective to design a house that is 90% more energy efficient than a typical home, and then only have to provide renewable energy for the other 10% of the home’s energy needs.  Also, because the teams need support in order to fund their home building, they often partner with manufacturers who have products that haven’t shown up in the mass market yet, giving the public a “sneak peek” at new technology.  Furthermore, several of the teams have made it a goal to show that high-performance homes can be attractive AND affordable, driving home the point that technology is available to the public.  Finally, Solar Decathlon houses are innovative in their use of home energy management and monitoring systems, showing that renewable systems can be integrated with advanced HVAC systems, appliances, and consumer electronics to make homes better and more livable.

I gave a webinar on this topic (in 2011), primarily to show that the homes of the future don’t just exist in our imagination… they have been built.  For those of us who work with residential energy efficiency, and who look forward to the day when our homes are as advanced as our smart phones, it is encouraging to visit the Solar Decathlon every two years and to see it as America’s “living laboratory” for the smart homes of tomorrow.

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