What is the Solar Decathlon?
The U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon is a competition that challenges collegiate teams to design, build, operate, and present a solar-powered, energy-efficient house. It’s held in West Potomac Park on the National Mall in Washington D.C., and the houses are open for public tours from September 23 through October 2. It’s called a decathlon for the 10 different contests used to assess the houses, from architecture and engineering to market appeal and affordability, as well as individual tests involving appliances, energy production, and hot water.
You’ve twice competed in the Solar Decathlon, and this year, you’re the competition manager. Which side of the event do you prefer bieng on? I’m not sure that I have a favorite. Both are very exciting in their own way.
I started out with the Solar Decathlon in 2006. I was an architecture student at the University of Illinois and wanted to understand how a house comes together, from concept all the way through to completion. For 2009, I was the project manager while I was an architecture student and getting an MBA. Through the Solar Decathlon, I worked with people in engineering, industrial design, landscape architecture, business, marketing, architecture, communications, and advertising, and then worked with industry partners to get donations, to get sponsorships, to try new products.
Now, as the competition manager for the 2011 event, I’m the main liaison between all the students, all the universities, and the organization that runs the Solar Decathlon. It’s been exciting to see how everything comes together. You have a limited set of conditions and requirements, yet you have 20 solutions. No two houses are the same.
How has your experience as a competitor affected the way you’re managing the event this year?It depends on the idea. Some products are in the mainstream already, like Energy Star appliances. The more innovative technologies— like a heat-pump water heater—are available, but manufacturers are looking at increasing the marketplace and increasing the penetration, so it could be from one to five years before they go mainstream.
Then there are teams that have innovative, brand-new ideas that are still in the conceptual design phase but are being tested and worked out. The Solar Decathlon houses serve as that test: These teams collect data for the inventor at the university or for the company that is helping to install the technology so that they can gain this knowledge.