Society and the Environment: Solar Living

solar decathlon

The solar panels on each house use energy from the sun to produce electricity that is used to power appliances, lights, mechanical systems, and electronics.

What is it like to live in a house powered entirely by the sun’s energy? You might expect the house to lack some modern comforts—perhaps it would be cramped, unattractive, too cold during the winter, too hot during the summer, or dimly lit at night. And it’s sure to be expensive, right? These things are not always true, and none of these issues are the case if the house is a successful entry in the Solar Decathlon.

Judging the Entries
The Solar Decathlon competition, sponsored by the United States Department of Energy (DOE), gives teams of college students a chance to design, build, and run a solar-powered house. Each entry is evaluated on the following 10 qualities:

  • Architecture
  • Comfort Zone
  • Market Appeal
  • Hot Water
  • Engineering
  • Appliances
  • Communications
  • Home Entertainment
  • Affordability
  • Energy Balance

Meeting the Requirements
A house that earns a high score in architecture is comfortable to live in and compatible with its surroundings, and the overall design pleases and inspires visitors. Market appeal is judged on practical livability; engineering on functionality and efficiency; affordability on cost; and so on.

Each of the measurable requirements is specific: for example, the house must be able to deliver 15 gallons of hot water (110°F) in 10 minutes or less, efficiently run appliances to heat and cool food, and wash and dry laundry. To demonstrate home entertainment, the teams must, among other things, give two dinner parties and host a movie night.

Winning the Competition
The 2011 Solar Decathlon included 20 teams from around the U.S. and the world. The winning house, which was built by a team from the University of Maryland, received a score of 951 out of 1000. After the competition, some houses are sold, while many are used for research and placed on display for the public at the universities where they were designed.

More About the Competition
The Solar Decathlon began in 2002. Starting in 2005, the competition has been held every two years. In addition to providing practical instruction for those who take part in the competition, the Solar Decathlon also allows the general public to learn more about solar-powered homes through activities such as house tours and workshops. The Solar Decathlon also occurs internationally with competitions held in Europe and China.

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