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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

A cloudy Solar Decathlon

For an event that relies on solar power, the sun was nowhere to be seen yesterday at the Solar Decathlon. This annual event brings together college students from around the world in a competition to create attractive and energy-efficient solar housing.

20 teams made the final cut to display their houses for two weeks on the National Mall before one is crowned the winner -- in 2007, my alma mater, the University of Maryland, came in second place overall and won the People's Choice award for the second consecutive year. This year, unfortunately, Maryland's team wasn't included.

What's cool about this event is that almost everything is explained in terms that even a science-challenged liberal arts major like me can understand.

At the house from the University of Minnesota, the students showed how to keep the house insulated from freezing winter temperatures (triple-paned windows), while competitors from the Universidad de Puerto Rico used cross-ventilation to keep indoor temps cool year-round and reduce the need for air con.

And don't think that having an eco-friendly housing equals a shack. These homes featured the latest appliances, from refrigerators and washing machines to televisions and dishwashers -- all entirely powered by the sun's energy.

Most of the houses, although small, looked cozy and completely livable. There's certainly enough room for one or two people and a pet or baby. TWalking through one house, I could definitely see myself living there, even with the small square-footage (5oo sq ft interior -- the competitors were limited to 800 sq ft total).

But the price tag for this adorable abode? $500,000. Whew!

It's a paradox. If solar housing is too expensive, people won't move into these types of homes. But at the same time, if more people buy solar houses (or even install a few solar panels on their current home), the price for necessary materials will decrease, thereby making solar houses more affordable. What's the answer?

The Solar Decathlon, sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, runs on the National Mall today and October 15-18. It's definitely worth checking out for an hour or more, just to see what the future might hold.