Texas house aims low to win solar contest

HOUSTON, TEXAS - A solar-powered house built by a group of Texas students offers a blueprint for recession-hit U.S. families to reduce their carbon dioxide emissions and their electricity bills without busting their budget.

The Zerow House, built by students at Rice University in Houston, will compete against other solar homes in Washington D.C. in October as part of the Solar Decathlon sponsored by the U.S.

Energy Department.

But unlike some of its competitors, which are integrating high-concept, high-price features like tricked-out home entertainment systems and moving solar arrays that track the sun, the Rice team's aim is affordability.

A quest for low-emission energy sources and looming first-ever U.S. regulations on carbon dioxide emissions have sparked renewed interest in solar power, which until recent years has been in an extended infancy in the United States since it was invented in 1954 by Bell Labs.

"This competition is for showing the public that solar energy is here now and applicable to housing," said Roque Sanchez, a Rice graduate student. "We're taking a house that any family could live in and any family could afford and adding solar to it."

In fact, Rice plans to donate the home to a low-income Houston family after the competition.

The house, about the size of a New York-style efficiency apartment, is a case study in frugality, and could easily be built in Houston for about $100,000, Sanchez said.

Its exterior has a no-nonsense, low-maintenance metal skin meant to bear up against the Gulf Coast region's hurricane-force winds, and a lattice of vines hangs off the front to shield it from the brutal Texas sun.

Inside, it sports off-the-shelf, affordable appliances and cabinetry from stores like Ikea and Home Depot.

Thanks to strong government incentives, Germany is the world's biggest solar market and is expected to remain so until 2013, when the United States will become its equal. China will be slightly behind, according to research firm Lux Research.

The growing market will be a boon for companies like Suntech Power Holdings Co Ltd and SunPower Corp, that make solar panels. The U.S. solar market could triple in 2010 from about 350 megawatts this year, Suntech said.

Rice's entry is in contrast to other entries, like Team Germany from Technische Universitat Darmstadt whose aim is to "push the envelope with as many new technologies as possible," according to the contest's website.

Team Germany, which won top honors in the last contest in 2007, is fielding a modernistic, two-story cube covered with solar cells that can generate 11.1 kilowatts of power — nearly three times the capacity of the Rice house.

But Sanchez said such high-tech houses miss the goal of making solar technology affordable to Main Street because they cost roughly five times as much as the Rice design.

"We've seen teams with half a million-euro houses," he said. "For something that's 500 square feet that's absolutely ridiculous."

That's not to say that Rice's home is low-tech.

Its interior is lit by light-emitting diode strips that collectively use less energy than two standard 100-watt bulbs, and its "smart meter" technology enables residents to sell spare energy from its solar cells back to the local utility, and monitor their energy usage on the Internet.


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