Students hope to shine in solar house competition

ROLLA, MISSOURI - An 800-square-foot house may not sound like much, but one recently built in Rolla, Mo., is special enough to take up residence near the Washington Monument.

The occasion is the Solar Decathlon, for which two Missouri universities have teamed up to compete against 19 other university groups. Each team has designed and built a renewable energy house that will be part of a “solar village” expected to draw 200,000 spectators on the National Mall.

The entry from the Missouri University of Science and Technology and the University of Missouri is arriving in Washington, and members of the “Show-Me Solar” team will be getting the house situated and operational for the event’s 10 contests.

“We’re in a pretty good mood,” Luke Sudkamp, a senior, said after the house was loaded onto a flatbed truck in Rolla for the trip to Washington.

Think of the Solar Decathlon as an NCAA tournament, but with hoop dreams replaced by dreams of energy independence.

The competing homes will be able to use the electric grid but, through their renewable sources, are expected to produce at least as much energy as they use during the several-day contest. The houses will get extra points if they produce an energy surplus, and the winner also will have to do well in categories that include being attractive, comfortable and easy to live in.

The event is backed heavily by the U.S. Department of Energy, which screened and pared 40 entrants to this year’s 20 contestants. The department also gave $100,000 to each of the teams to help with expenses and is allowing the temporary use of the mall — prime Washington real estate.

Federal officials said the highly anticipated Solar Decathlon demonstrated the potential for a clean-energy economy and helped create a generation of scientists and engineers to help solve energy problems.

“These students are remarkable,” Energy Secretary Steven Chu said.

The first Solar Decathlon was held in 2002, followed by events in 2005 and 2007. The Missouri University of Science and Technology, formerly the University of Missouri-Rolla, is one of only two schools that have been selected to compete in all four decathlons.

This year the Rolla university is collaborating with University of Missouri students who are providing their architectural expertise. This year’s competition includes schools such as Cornell University, Iowa State University and Virginia Polytechnic Institute, as well as teams from Canada, Spain and Germany. Technische Univesitat Darmstad in Germany, the 2007 winner, is making a return visit.

The Missouri schools and about 40 of their students have been working for more than a year on the design and construction of the home, at times putting in more than 12-hour days. The students also had to raise the bulk of the project’s $600,000 budget, which paid for the house and other expenses.

The house, which has a bedroom, kitchen and living room, had to be built according to Solar Decathlon rules, including its size and using only off-the-shelf materials or components.

Its dishwasher, washer and dryer meet the Energy Star efficiency standards. Paneling with high-density foam insulation, available from a Jefferson City company, was used for exterior walls. Electricity is generated with 40 photovoltaic panels on the roof.

Solar-heated water — besides being available for showers and dishwashing — circulates through hoses under the floor to help heat the house. A high-efficiency heat pump will provide cooling and backup heating.

The house is programmed to operate at peak efficiency. For instance, if the dishwasher needs to run, it turns on when the water heater is getting the most “solar gain” — meaning more plentiful hot water.

“All the products we used are available” commercially, said Sara Shafer, another Rolla senior.

But that doesn’t mean they’re cheap. Building the house accounted for about $350,000 of the Missouri team’s budget, illustrating another point about the contest: It’s meant to spur creativity and show what’s possible, rather than what’s economical today.

But as more solar practices are adopted, their costs will come down. And the contest demonstrates that many zero-energy-use designs can be easy and enjoyable to live in and meet the demands of a family.

For instance, one category is home comfort, with the houses needing to stay between 72 degrees and 76 degrees, with a relative humidity of 40 percent to 55 percent. Another category is home entertainment, for which the students have to throw a dinner party for neighbors and have a movie night. Besides showing there will be enough power for such activities, the teams have to show such events can be done to the satisfaction of the guests.

The public will be invited to look at the homes from October 9 to 13 and October 15 to 18, and the 10 contests will be held from October 8 through 16. Past contests have drawn hundreds of thousands of visitors.

Judges will decide which house does best in each contest and announce an overall winner. Then the homes will be packed up to leave the mall.

For the Missouri home, that means a trip back to Rolla, where it will join the school’s three previous decathlon entries in the university’s own solar village.

Beyond the viability of their technology, the houses show pride in the students who designed and built them, said the school’s chancellor, John F. Carney III.

“The future starts to look a lot brighter when you observe the capabilities of our students,” he said.


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