Help Wanted: The Solar Decathlon

The US Department of Energy has announced it doesn't want to run the Solar Decathlon anymore, and the agency is seeking an appropriate group, or more likely a consortium of groups, to take charge and administer the solar house contest.  More information is here.

The 2009 Solar Decathlon on the National Mall in Washington. Public domain.

The 2009 Solar Decathlon on the National Mall in Washington. Public domain.

Of interest is the fact that DOE will award $3,000,000-4,000,000 to the winning Administrator, plus the winner is required to provide a 50% cost share.  This reveals what it costs to put on the contest. 

In The Solar House I detailed some of the exciting contributions of the Decathlon, and some of the criticism.  I admire the creativity and hard work of the students.  And I admire that the contest requires student-architects and student-engineers to work together*.  I am critical of the contest for a number of reasons.  First, because the projects (one-bedroom and about 800-square feet) generally cost $2,000,000 or more; this isn't a good lesson for any student and a huge burden on the universities (see: Too Expensive: The Solar Decathlon).  Second, the requirement that the houses be transportable is basically wrong, because a solar house with any kind of passive aspirations needs to be heavy, with lots of thermal mass.  And here on the blog I've complained that holding the contest in the mild climate of Southern California in October isn't very challenging.  See: The Solar Decathlon: Back to Irvine

What does it mean that the DOE doesn't want to run the Solar Decathlon anymore?  It certainly could mean the beginning of an exciting new era.  It will be interesting to see who will be willing to commit such a large amount of resources to take on this job.  Hopefully some group (USGBC?) will step forward with a bunch of bold new ideas to reinvent the contest and reinvigorate the solar house movement.  I have some suggestions for the future of the contest:

  • Set reasonable spending limits based on Norwich University's: "The Most Affordable Solar Decathlon House. Ever." (pdf)
  • Build a permanent neighborhood each time, and donate the houses to real people in need. Alternatively, schools could build a permanent home in their home location.
  • Hold the contest in challenging weather conditions (maybe Minneapolis in November as I mentioned in the link above) in order to emphasize passive solar heating and superinsulation.
  • Measure the homes' energy use with real occupants.  Ask the students to address user behavior, which is a huge difference-maker in home energy use.
  • Measure carbon footprint, including embodied energy.
  • Promote multi-family housing rather than detached homes.

These are bigger ideas, and most of them are not workable within the DOE's solicitation, which specifies that future Decathlons occur, like the previous ones, at a common park-like location, with 20 temporary freestanding houses.  Still, I offer these ideas with the hope that others may be thinking about how to breathe new life into the Decathlon by transforming it.

I fear, however, that the DOE announcement simply means that the Solar Decathlon has jumped the shark.  Suppose a for-profit industry group wins the contract administer the contest.  Earlier I asked why so many top universities want to participate in such a naked promotional effort for the PV industry, and why students are willing to donate their labor to such an effort.  In this scenario, you might argue that the true character of the endeavor would be more clearly revealed.  They could hire the students as PV salespeople.

A quick rough estimate says that the overall cost of the Decathlon is somewhere between $40-50 million, including the costs to the schools.  Since the purpose is to promote the residential use of PV, one must ask: what would be the highest and best use of that amount of money?  For instance, at a rough estimate of $30,000 per installation, $40 million could give solar to 1333 families in their existing homes.  What kind of publicity and education could that produce?

*In 2006 I was told that my own school, the University of Wyoming, couldn't compete in the Solar Decathlon because we do not have architecture students, only engineering, and therefore we would not have an interdisciplinary design team.  Though I wanted my students to compete, I accepted that decision because the rationale was noble.