Oct 31, 201311:00 AMPoint of View

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

(page 2 of 3)

Brianna Bacon, right, and Lizzie DeLeonibus, left, of Maryland look out over Florida International University’s solar thermal collector system at West Potomac Park in Washington, D.C., Wed., Sept. 28, 2011.

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

In Hamburg, public-private partnerships were formed to convert existing low-performance housing to smart, high-performance housing. One of Europe’s largest energy companies, Vattenfall, worked with a test group to bring renewable energy (a combination of wind, solar, geothermal, and other sources) to converted flats by employing smart metering and smart grid technology. In fact, they completely re-conceptualized the mode of power distribution/consumption and now envision this new “smart” system as the future of energy use for the city—along with hydrogen buses and electric vehicle infrastructure.

It’s extremely ambitious, and, as an American, I found myself being skeptical. Can they really do this, I wondered. The test group customers have to undergo behavior modification and be re-educated about how to consume less energy and use it more efficiently by following the ebb and flow of renewable power sources. Of course, the smart-grid does much of this for them if they go along with it.

Interior architectural photograph of Middlebury College’s entry in the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon 2011, Washington D.C., Sept. 23, 2011.

Courtesy © Jim Tetro/U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

This seems to be the one crucial element of the sustainable equation that often gets overlooked by energy-hungry Americans. People seem to expect that they can consume at the same levels they always have and that houses like Solar Decathlon houses can be experienced the same way they would experience a conventional energy-hog home. It’s set up as if the home has to prove its worth to the customer rather than the customer having to adapt to the home. This establishes a false precedent that, in the long run, undermines sustainable building initiatives.

The other issue is that the Solar Decathlon positions these “experiments” outside the complete context of urban transportation, real neighborhoods, and the overall infrastructure of daily life that would actually “demonstrate” that such homes work.

Team Alberta: University of Calgary’s Solar Decathlon 2013 House Rendering.

Courtesy U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon

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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