Oct 31, 201311:00 AMPoint of View

The Indicator: Why the Solar Decathlon Should Enter the Real World

The Indicator: Why the Solar Decathlon Should Enter the Real World

Visitors tour the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011 in Washington, D.C., Friday, Sept. 30, 2011, with Arlington, VA, left, and the Lincoln Memorial, right, in the background. Image © Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Courtesy © Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

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This article, by Guy Horton, originally appeared on ArchDaily as “The Indicator: Why the Solar Decathlon Should Enter the Real World”. 

I don’t mean to poo poo the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Solar Decathlon project, but the more I hear about it the more I wonder if this isn’t an indication of just how far behind the United States is in terms of energy policy and the design of smart environments. Are we really that far behind that we need a program like this to prove this stuff really works? Are people still disbelieving? Do they really need demonstration homes to show how photovoltaics (PVs) produce electricity or how sustainable principles can be applied to architecture? I suppose it makes sense in a country that still obsesses about the Case Study Houses and has debates about whether climate change is a reality.

The purpose of the Solar Decathlon is primarily to educate the public on high-performance building practices. Since 2002 when the DOE held the first one, it’s been putting “green” building in front of people who otherwise would not get to experience it—or, in reality, a self-selecting population of people who are probably already into such things.

The University of Maryland’s entry, WaterShed, which placed first overall, in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011 in Washington, D.C., Friday, Sept. 30, 2011.

Courtesy © Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

Of course, the other purpose is to get a bunch of architecture students to design and build to gain some practical experience with energy-efficient buildings. The Solar Decathlon has, according to their URL, “Affected the lives of nearly 17,000 collegiate participants.” Undoubtedly, the program serves as a catalyst for young architects-to-be and contributes to the knowledge base of participating architecture programs. How can this be bad?

But does it do anything else? It certainly generates a lot of buzz. But is that buzz that is reaching “tens of millions of people,” as their website claims, having an impact on the mainstream? By setting what are ostensibly mobile homes up in a field, this time in Irvine, California, does it really promote sustainable building practices in a meaningful way?

A little context: I recently returned from a trip to Hamburg, Germany where, even though it can be cloudy a lot of the time, solar power is a fact of life and part of the overall energy picture. People there don’t blink when you bring up PV panels or district solar hot water generation or any number of renewable energy strategies. Solar is simply viewed as part of a comprehensive long-term vision for the city’s energy future. They even believe climate change is real! What a strange land, this Germany.

Now, I think it’s a good thing the DOE is holding these competitions, but I wonder if it wouldn’t be more constructive at this point (this is the sixth event) to get this out of the grassy fields and into the hearts of cities, by partnering with real developers to create real-life affordable multi-family housing, say, in a place where real people need it.


Nov 1, 2013 09:24 pm
 Posted by  PAS

I attended the most recent Solar Decathlon and yes, I am part of that self-selecting population of people who is already into such things.

However, listening to the many questions I heard while on house tours, there were many attendees who were asking "basic" questions about solar power and how it works. My four year old, custom built house has 24 solar panels and when I share that information with "regular folks" I meet through my work they still ask such things as where I keep the batteries.

The fact is most folks who buy a home (either previously lived in or new) do not get to make the decisions about how energy-efficient it is, decisions that have been made by prior owners or the developer.

Also my sense is that many home owners, or would be owners, have a wish list of things they want in their home and if you watch HGTV shows you regularly hear that list as folks discuss future purchases or makeovers. Energy efficiency is rarely mentioned, unless the house being made over has displayed annoying symptoms, such as heavy condensation. Intellectually, most folks know energy efficiency can mean payback but it's not as sexy and immediately visible as marble countertops or walk-in closets.

So I agree with notion that the DOE should find ways of targeting developers and offering incentives. The hybrid and all electric car market has experienced various incentives, one being that the average MPG # across the manufacturer's fleet means there will a range of vehicles offered to meet it. And we also have the tax break incentives.

Maybe there should be a similar programs for home developers and home improvement practices.

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