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A Duel in the Sun

Solar Home Contest in D.C. Returns Amid Rising Climate Worries

The U-Md. team completes its solar home. Because of climate changes, urgency about making solar power more practical and affordable has grown.
The U-Md. team completes its solar home. Because of climate changes, urgency about making solar power more practical and affordable has grown. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
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By Steven Mufson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 12, 2007; Page B01

In front of the Smithsonian Castle, the Mall has taken on the appearance of "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" meets Extreme Climate Change.

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Over the past week, teams of university students have hammered and drilled together 20 small, energy-efficient homes with choice views of the Capitol in hopes of winning the top prize in the Energy Department's third Solar Decathlon, which starts today.

The design contest is a showcase for photovoltaic panels, inverters and insulation as well as hot tubs, skylights, carports and hanging gardens.

"A lot of students don't get the opportunity to build what they're designing," said Kim Singleton, an architecture student at the University of Maryland, which has dubbed its abode the LEAFHouse, as in Leading Everyone to an Abundant Future. "Plus," she said, "designing green is the up and coming thing."

That wasn't the case when Richard King, an Energy Department engineer, thought of the decathlon, which gives a trophy to the winner. King said he sought to tap "the power of our engineers" and figure out how to "design a solar house that is aesthetically pleasing." With growing concern about climate change, there is a greater sense of urgency about making solar, which accounts for less than 1 percent of U.S. energy needs, more practical and economical.

"It's never been this close," Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman said about solar's prospects. Solar costs less than peak electricity in much of the country, but costs need to be cut by half before the technology can compete with conventional fuels without subsidies.

Even with a lot of free labor, custom features and first-time costs brought the tab for most of the structures to $500,000 to $1 million each, paid for with Energy Department grants and individual and corporate donations.

The homes, which can be no larger than 700 square feet, are scored on 10 measures of appearance, marketability, and performance of daily household chores while maintaining comfortable temperatures and charging a battery-driven car.

Passing those tests can be tough. In 2005, several days of rain and clouds took a toll on solar-powered batteries. As to the designs, some energy-miser homes in past years have had all the pizazz of Jimmy Carter in a sweater.

This year's teams came equipped with extra batteries. Texas A&M University brought 6,000 pounds of batteries. The designs, although imaginative, are variations of one-story boxes -- low enough to maximize roof space for solar panels and rectangular to get them to the District in trucks or containers.

The team to beat is the University of Colorado at Boulder, winner of the decathlons in 2002 and 2005. This year, it built its house around a "core" with the essential heating, air-conditioning, plumbing and electrical systems. The core, designed to power a full-size home, could be mass-produced with custom floor plans and fixtures around it.

The 2005 runner-up, Cornell University, has designed a light steel canopy for the solar panel array, solar thermal tubes and vertical vegetation. The canopy is made of inexpensive scaffolding and is painted and decorated with plants. It can be built around an existing home. "The solar market is constantly changing, and you can upgrade systems without damaging the house," said Siobhan Rockcastle, a Cornell architecture student. Kids who saw it in Ithaca, N.Y., thought it was a jungle gym.


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