Solar Decathlon 2015: Celebrating a Decade of Engineering Innovation

 

For fourteen years, the Solar Decathlon has been an international competition and challenge for university students in the area of household and industrial design as well as sustainable, civil, mechanical, and energy engineering. Presented by the United States Department of Energy, and organized by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NERL), the world-renowned competition has brought forward educational institutions from around the world to design renewable energy-efficient homes that can be shipped disassembled and re-assembled on-site for evaluation. This year’s competition was held in Orange County Great Park in Irvine, California, from October 8th to 18th.

 

ASHRAE has been a sponsor for this event and has helped collegiates build solar powered, environmentally friendly, and visually appealing homes for the past decade. Engineers, estimators, communication and marketing professionals, and architects are brought in as judges and base their score on ten judgment criteria: architecture, market appeal, engineering, communications, affordability, comfort zone, hot water, appliances, home entertainment, and energy balance. ASHRAE selected a couple of their engineers to preside as a judge on the engineering jury, Ginger Scoggins, P.E., regional Chair on the Board of Directors and ASHRAE Region IV director, as well as Michael J. Brandemuehl, Ph.D, P.E., who is a former director at the ASHRAE Board of Directors. “It was extremely enjoyable,” Scoggins said. “The enthusiasm of the students and the systems that they included in their houses were very innovative! These kids worked on these houses for two years and raised money to cover the costs of construction and shipment, which ran in the $300 000 range for most homes.”

 

During the challenge, the idea is to create a home under $250 000, which earn points in functionality, uniform indoor environmental conditions, holistic and creative design, architectural elements, potential market value, proper website development, several daily hot water draws, and running a laundry or dishwasher. In addition to the engineering competition, the entire area is open for touring to the public in order to promote energy efficiency awareness to existing or prospective homeowners. As a result, it offers very interesting incentives and ideas for reducing one’s monthly energy bills. Canadian regional competitors from 2013 included a joint effort between Carleton University and Algonquin College, located in Ottawa, ON and Queen’s University, in Kingston, ON.

 

It was interesting to note that most of the universities were American except for the Czech Technical University, and the Vienna University of Technology, who were the winners that year. In the past, such as in 2002 and 2005, the University of Colorado took the prize, however, as the competition gained international prestige, the Technische Universitat Darmstadt, from Germany, weighed in and took the 2007 and 2009 prizes. University of Maryland won it in 2011.

 

As an engineering university student not too long ago, I remember being approached as a class by the Solar Decathlon team at Carleton University, who was partnering with Queen’s and Algonquin and were gearing up for the 2013 competition. Some of the innovative products and ideas that stemmed from this competition included: a freeze-tolerant integrated solar PV and water heating system, rainwater collection systems with heat recovery, photovoltaic cells integrated into glass, radiant heating and cooling systems, and windows with the same thermal resistance as regular building walls to name a few. It offers a great networking opportunity as well for energy, engineering, design, and architecture professionals moving forward with a whole new approach to their disciplines.

 

This competition has gained so much traction that after hosting teams from Belgium, China, Spain, New Zealand, Puerto Rico, Ontario, British Columbia, and Quebec, China has formed its own Solar Decathlon, which began in 2013. It is also interesting to note that the first Latin American Solar Decathlon will be held in Cali, Colombia, on December 2015, which marks the first of these competitions outside of the United States and the first in Latin America! Basically, they were looking to focus the competition on higher population densities, as well as local and social relevance and housing, in order to make these ideas more accessible. Using motivating and exciting competitions to stimulate education and interest in sustainable design and growth, we can move forward in adopting these practices with up-and-coming generations.

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