Is the Solar Decathlon Still Relevant? The short answer is “yes,” but probably not for the reasons the United States Department of Energy intended.
The Solar Decathlon, currently underway at Orange County Great Park, in Irvine, California, “challenges collegiate teams to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive.” The overall goal of the competition is to demonstrate the viability of solar power to the public, while also providing the participating students with hands-on design, engineering, and construction experience. When the first Solar Decathlon took place in 2002, the viability of solar power was anything but certain, and the venue on the National Mall in Washington DC gave credence to the pursuit of energy efficiency and renewable energy sources.
Much has changed in the last thirteen years. Today, thanks to improvements in technology, economies of scale, incentives, and government policies, renewable energy sources are more viable than ever (despite the continued political divide in the United States on the reality and causes of climate change).
When I first visited the Solar Decathlon in 2007, the solar technology in use on each of the houses was front-and-center–if not in the designs, then certainly in the discussions. Tours of the competition houses always included a stop at the mechanical rooms, showcasing the inverters that converted the low voltage DC current generated by the PV panels to the standard line-voltage AC current needed to power the homes, and the batteries that stored energy for use at night. This year, only a handful of teams even mentioned the solar power aspects of their homes, which may just be a sign of the progress in solar technology. PV panels are now available with integral inverters, eliminating the need for a separate component (and helping to increase efficiencies), and this year’s contest rules forbade the use of batteries.
The venue for the competition also implies a waning influence for the Solar Decathlon. Rather than the prominence of the National Mall, in the shadow of the US Capitol building, this year’s competition–like the 2013 edition–is being held on an underutilized parking lot in Orange County Great Park, the optimistically-named redevelopment of the massive Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, still struggling to rebound from the 2008 housing crisis. Just getting to the event involves parking on one of the decommissioned runways, and then taking a ten minute bus ride to the actual competition site. As a resident of Los Angeles, I’m grateful for the proximity, but I can’t help but question the logic of staging this event in a state that has adopted a policy mandating zero net energy for all new construction homes by 2020. California, at least in policy, is already on the renewable energy bandwagon.
But despite the relatively mundane approach to solar power at this year’s Solar Decathlon, and the lackluster venue, there was no shortage of innovation and inspiration in the homes that the teams produced.
The SU+RE House from the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey took their inspiration from the impacts of Superstorm Sandy to design a new prototype for resilient architecture along the Jersey Shore. Rather than designing a home that is raised over a dozen feet off the ground to comply with new FEMA guidelines, the team took cues from nautical design to create a waterproof shell that can withstand floods at a level lower to the ground to maintain a connection with the surrounding community.
Similarly, the design for ShelteR3, a collaboration between Crowder College and Drury University, was informed by the devastating tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri in 2011. The three R's in the name of the house stand for “respond,” “recover,” and “resist,” as the team envisioned the modular structure as a potential emergency shelter solution following a disaster, that can later be modified to become a permanent home, prepared for future storms with impact-resistant concrete siding panels, and storm doors and windows made from bulletproof Lexan polycarbonate.
In a competition dominated by single-family homes, the DURAhome from New York City College of Technology was designed to be stackable, allowing multifamily housing solutions in urban areas, while NexusHaus, a collaboration between the University of Texas at Austin and Technische Universitaet Muenchen, is designed as a prototype accessory dwelling unit, with modular elements that can take different configurations to suit a variety of site constraints.
The Indigo Pine team, from Clemson University, used plywood and CNC milling to develop a unique structural system that enabled a team of 24 students to build their house from the ground up at the competition site in only nine days. In contrast, the other teams completed the bulk of their construction off-site, and then shipped the near-finished homes to the competition site.
These were some of the most compelling stories from the Solar Decathlon, and yet none of these approaches are directly related to solar energy. To be sure, solar energy generation is still the primary component of the competition, but it is not what most of the teams chose to highlight. And while contests that involve hosting a movie night or powering an electric car demonstrate the viability of solar-powered homes, they do not necessarily encourage innovation in the use of renewable energy sources. This year’s Solar Decathlon provides a venue for some cutting-edge architectural thought, and as always, the accomplishment of all of the participating teams is impressive. But the solar aspect of the competition has become an afterthought.
Despite progressive policies in states like California, the United States still has a long way to go in harnessing the potential of renewable energy sources. The Solar Decathlon still has a role to play, but it can’t take its central mission of renewable energy for granted.