A Preview Of The 2011 Solar Decathlon: What Makes It Great

Our guest blogger is A. Siegel, of Get Energy Smart Now. The Solar Decathlon is running on Potomac Park off the National Mall until October 2. Tomorrow, ThinkProgress Green will present A. Siegel’s full guide to the 19 teams competing in the Solar Decathlon.

U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011 collegiate teams, representing five countries and four continents.

One of the nation’s most important intercollegiate competitions has just opened in Washington, DC: the biennial Solar Decathlon. For two weeks, 19 university teams from around the globe put up solar-powered demonstration homes that compete across the decathlon’s ten categories, including the functionality of the house (for example, for household tasks like washing dishes and cooking dinner), measured performance items (how much electricity does the house produce), and perception items that can’t be tangibly measured (aesthetic design quality). The houses are open to the public, and team members are on hand to discuss the architecture and technology that underlie these visions of a clean green future that is available today. Here’s the Department of Energy’s preview:

Each year, the Solar Decathlon is awaited by many, including this author, with much anticipation and bated breath. After years of work, the homes were assembled at Potomac Park off the National Mall and opened to the public this past weekend. In preparation for visiting the homes, here are some general observations:

The Solar Decathlon is a serious competition. The Solar Decathlon has truly transformed. A decade ago, it took only a few moments to sort out which teams would be on top and which weren’t in the same caliber. Even just two years ago, while every single house had elements meriting praise, sorting “top” from “bottom” wasn’t that difficult. (My ‘top five’ prediction, in terms of team composition, was off by one in 2009 as I expected the Spanish team to compete with the German team for #1 rather than placing 14th …) This year, looking at the teams and having visited the site, I believe that the judges, happily, face much more difficult challenges in ‘juried’ elements and can’t predict how the teams will sort out in measured performance. This competition is wide open with what look to be 19 tremendous houses and teams putting their finishing touches on their homes prior to opening doors to the public in just a few days.

Marketable Solar Homes. It is easy to see every single one of these homes commercialized. Every single one looks to be (very) livable, attractive homes that fit some form of market niche. This has not necessarily been true, despite team aspirations otherwise, in the past. The 2011 Solar Decathlon’s emphasize on affordability hopefully has driven the teams to truly cost-sensible solutions. If so, might this be the Solar Decathlon where a team emerges (or teams emerge) with a meaningful path toward producing large numbers of their house (or derivatives of it)?

The Solar Decathlon Appeals to All Ages. While I will provide some of my reactions to the houses, my seven and ten year old children’s comments will appear in a few. The Solar Decathlon, in part, provides an exciting vision for a path toward a sustainable and prosperous climate-friendly future. This excitement is shared, in my experience, by the vast majority who get there — of all ages. As a window on this, my seven-year old chose to watch the team videos (rather than asking to watch TV). And, she watched them … every single one … and when my better 95+% came in, my daughter had team videos that she wanted to show her mother, highlighting specific features that she thought her mom would love. And, well, “beautiful … can we buy that … that is really cool …” were the types of phrases coming out of her mouth, in wonder, in over an hour of watching (not all at once). And, well, my ten-year old son ended up doing much the same thing the next morning. And, they can’t wait to visit The Solar Decathlon to see the homes. As a parent, this joy, wonder, attention to detail, and intellectual interest (more my son) were a real pleasure to experience. As someone concerned about our energy reality and seeking to help foster a better path forward, this youthful passion and enthusiasm was an encouraging note.

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