By RICHARD KING February 18, 2014
One thing you notice when walking around the Solar Decathlon competition village is the energy — and it’s not just coming off the solar energy systems. There is a buzz in the air. Everyone is talking. The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon naturally stimulates discussion. Some people come to judge for themselves. Some come to learn what’s new. The more they see, the more there is to get excited about. That’s the kind of energy we like to generate!
Moving the location of the Solar Decathlon, which had been held five times since 2002 in Washington, D.C., begged the question, “If we build it in California, will they come?” We are pleased to report they did. About 64,000 Southern California residents visited Solar Decathlon 2013, according to our event hosts, the Orange County Great Park and City of Irvine. Based on that number and our counting system as people entered the houses, we estimate that the student teams conducted more than 300,000 house tours during the eight-day public exhibit.
Attendance alone doesn’t tell the story. The decathletes and their houses stole the show. Individually, the students are some of the most passionate, dedicated and articulate young professionals to enter the clean energy workforce. Many are born leaders. Together they formed teams that were motivated, well-organized and highly effective.
They designed the best-performing, best-looking solar houses ever. We knew after the second day that the juries were going to have a difficult time scoring and ranking the teams. It took the juries three long days of deliberation to finally come to their decisions. The overall quality in this competition was that good.
All photos by Jason Flakes/U.S. Department of Energy, Solar Decathlon
One of the benefits of holding the Solar Decathlon every two years is to provide enough time for continued R&D advancements. The university teams study the previous designs and design new houses based on the lessons learned. Since 2002, the houses in each successive competition have gotten better.
This year’s solar decathletes raised the bar several notches, with dramatically improved craftsmanship and performance. Each year we say that everyone is a winner in the Solar Decathlon. This year it was truer than ever. One stroll down Decathlete Way proved it. Every house had something of value.
A Year of Firsts
Solar Decathlon 2013 experienced several “firsts” in the competition. For the first time:
All of the student-built houses produced more energy than they consumed. Granted, we were in sunny Southern California — but during the nine-day competition we experienced the first cloudy, rainy day in three months and the first Santa Ana winds of the season, blowing 40 to 50 mph for a day and a half. By staying net-zero during the contest period, all 19 of the houses proved that solar is a reliable source of clean energy.
The Solar Decathlon was accompanied by a complementary event — the XPO. For the first time, a clean energy exposition was held alongside the Solar Decathlon, featuring innovative clean energy companies, products and educational opportunities. Together, Solar Decathlon 2013 and the XPO created a unique and powerful showcase for technology, education, products, arts and business opportunities related to clean and renewable energy generation and efficient energy use.
Visitors responded enthusiastically to the XPO. Thousands of people visited the booths inside the SunShot Innovation Pavilion. In the Transportation Zone, Solar Decathlon sponsor Bosch offered electric bicycle rides, and more than 2,700 visitors took an estimated 6,000 e-bike rides. Toyota provided ride-and-drives with its line of electric and hybrid cars. The big hit was the Rav4 electric conversion with the Tesla power train. What a rocket! It was so much fun I took several rides up and down the runway.
Three houses achieved estimated construction costs under $250,000. Norwich University, Stanford University and Kentucky/Indiana (University of Louisville, Ball State University and University of Kentucky) tied for first place in the Affordability Contest, demonstrating how cost-effective, appealing and livable energy-saving houses powered by solar energy can be. The average estimated construction cost for all 19 of the net-zero houses was $280,000.
A Close Competition
As the Solar Decathlon 2013 approached the finish line, the standings were the closest ever, reflecting the quality of all the houses.
The juries issued more ties in their evaluations than ever before, finding it difficult to choose a clear winner. The following ties added to the competition’s tight point spread:
Three teams tied for third place: Team Austria from Vienna University of Technology, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte and University of Nevada Las Vegas.
Three teams tied for first place by earning the full 100 points for achieving a target construction cost of $250,000 or less: Norwich University at $168,385, Stanford University at $234,092 and Kentucky/Indiana (University of Louisville, Ball State University and University of Kentucky) at $248,423.
Tying for third place were Czech Technical University from the Czech Republic and Stanford University.
Scoring in the five performance-based contests was very close as well. We had six ties for first place and two ties for second place in the Hot Water Contest, in addition to the 19 ties for first place in Energy Balance.
Throughout the 2013 competition, the separation between all the teams in the ranking was, on average, two to three points. For perspective, the average point spread between the first- and second-place teams in the five previous Solar Decathlons from 2002 to 2011 was 22 points. This year, Team Austria from the Vienna University of Technology was crowned the 2013 overall winner, scoring just 4.35 points more than the University of Nevada Las Vegas in second place. That’s amazing. Clearly, 2013 was the closest competition ever, and the most exciting.
The Solar Decathlon 2013 was an early adopter of the latest building and electric codes. The 2013 houses were built to the 2012 International Residential Code with amendments and the 2011 National Electric Code. The teams integrated new technology in ways that will comply with the new building codes. To do well in the competition, the teams must then exceed the codes with innovation and energy performance.
More scoring data can be found at solardecathlon.gov/contests.html.
A noticeable trend in Solar Decathlon 2013 was the use of photovoltaic (PV) systems as shading devices (some detached from the house), which delivered the double benefit of providing shade while not penetrating the roof. Several teams made use of solar panels as shade structures: Middlebury College, The University of North Carolina at Charlotte, Team Ontario (Queen’s University, Carleton University and Algonquin College), University of Nevada Las Vegas, and Arizona State University and The University of New Mexico.
In fact, the Arizona/New Mexico team named its house “SHADE” because of its independent solar canopy composed of 36 high-efficiency monocrystalline PV panels. The solar canopy provided the main source of energy as well as shade — in this case, 1 square foot of solar equaled 1 square foot of shade.
This is just one more example of how Solar Decathlon houses can reveal the future by demonstrating the latest technologies integrated to comply with the latest building codes.
The results of Solar Decathlon 2013 show that the university teams are designing state-of-the-art, building-integrated solar energy systems that are reliable, affordable and visually appealing. The university programs centered around departments of engineering and architecture are improving — and as the teams have improved, the competition houses have improved, which is very rewarding to see.
For Solar Decathlon 2015, we are considering ways to challenge teams further — such as by requiring them to power not only their houses, but also an electric car. Given how successful the XPO Transportation Zone was and how important clean transportation is, the addition of electric cars would expand the competition from a house to a household.
At its core, the Solar Decathlon is an educational experience that benefits everyone. We’re giving participating students the hands-on learning opportunity of a lifetime. From here, they have the skills and knowledge they need to enter the clean energy workforce. For the rest of us, we’re witnessing an amazing demonstration of creativity and innovation that we can all learn from.
What’s in our future? In 2015, watch for the universities to demonstrate the power of clean energy lifestyles in, around, and to and from the home. Stay tuned.
Richard King, creator and director of the Solar Decathlon, works in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For competition results, product directory, photos of the houses and videos of the event, visit solardecathlon.gov.