Thursday, July 19, 2007

U of I Teams Designs and Constructs Self-Sustaining House to Compete in Solar Decathlon

U of I Teams Designs and Constructs Self-Sustaining House to Compete in Solar Decathlon

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Imagine life in a house that takes care of itself. No, not a house that picks up after you. One that harnesses the power of the sun to generate electricity--all of the energy you need for heating and cooling, hot water, lighting, and appliances. Then go a step further, and imagine that your house collects enough extra solar energy to power a small electric car for commuting to work or running errands around town.

For a group of imaginative faculty and students at the University of Illinois, such a house is not a pipe dream, but rather a concrete, near-term goal. They are in the final stages of constructing a three-room, modular house that is entirely self-sustaining. [Left: James Young, a junior in Engineering, works on decks
and wheelchir ramps for the solar house. Photo by Vanda Bidwell for the Champaign

The house will serve as the U of I’s entry in the Solar Decathlon, a competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy. The competition brings together 20 college teams from around the world in a contest “to design, build, and operate the most livable, energy-efficient completely solar-powered house.” [Click here to link to the U of I Solar Decathlon team's website.]

Teams will transport their entries to the National Mall in Washington D.C. this October. There they will be judged on how well they meet demands for energy, as well as their architectural integrity and aesthetic appeal.

The U of I’s entry into the Solar Decathlon has benefited from the involvement of more than a dozen faculty members who have donated their time and expertise to project. In addition, more than 150 undergraduate students, in disciplines that include industrial design, engineering, architecture, and computer science, have played a role in the creation of the house.

Teams competing in the Solar Decathlon will earn points by performing the tasks of everyday life in their houses—cooking, washing dishes, and doing laundry, as well as running a computer and television. Beyond that they must also store enough of the power generated by the house to operate their electric car.

The most practical way to create a house that can meet all of its energy needs with solar power is to reduce the demand for energy through conservation. Thus the walls of the U of I team’s solar house boast four times the insulation value of the current standard for home construction. The windows far exceed current standards, too. They are specially designed to let in light and provide a view, but they are relatively small, and oriented to decrease undesirable warming in the summer.

The solar house generates electricity by means of commercially produced solar panels mounted above the roof. Over the lifetime of the panels, the cost for the electricity they provide will be about the same as if it were purchased from a utility. The energy cost of running the electric vehicle using solar power actually works out to be less than that of a gasoline powered vehicle.

In speaking about the U of I solar house, Ty Newell, a professor of mechanical engineering, and one of many faculty members who has helped to move the project forward, emphasizes that the Solar Decathlon is not about far out technology. Instead, he says “It’s meant to be a display to people that being comfortable and conserving energy aren’t two different things, that we can build a house that requires only 10 percent of the energy a typical house today requires, build it with today’s technologies and show that it saves money.”

I would add that such a display reminds us we have it within our grasp to meet the challenges of rising energy costs and global warming, if we are willing to adjust our priorities.