Solar Decathlon Builds Green Jobs and Green Homes

Nelson: Been following the various entries, and I’ve really enjoyed the creative spirit and ingenuity in many of them. After a rough day of bad news around the world, a nice bright spot is really appreciated.

A 22- year-old engineering student with horn-rimmed glasses welcomed me into his home. Sean’s sports jersey indicated that he was a decathlete- but perhaps not in the traditional ‘sport athlete’ sense of the word. And the house looked very different from the homes in Sean’s neighborhood, back in South Florida.

Sean is a solar decathlete and his house is exclusively powered by 22 solar panels. The 40 students on Team Florida (from the University of South Florida, University of Florida, University of Central Florida, and Florida State University) have spent the last two years designing and building this prefabricated house and are now in Washington, D.C., to compete in the Department of Energy’s 2011 Solar Decathlon.

Through a series of 10 contests, the decathlon challenges college teams from across the country to design, build, and operate solar-powered houses that are cost-effective, energy-efficient, and attractive.

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Team Florida’s FLeX House (Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy)

I met Sean at the National Mall’s West Potomac Park in D.C., where the 19 solar homes are situated and open to the public. It was a humid afternoon and the large crowds and the irregularly shaped buildings made me feel like I was at a summer carnival. I hesitantly joined a line of people to enter the Team Florida FLeX House, not sure what to expect or if it was worth the wait. But the line moved quickly and I soon found myself inside a spacious, modern studio apartment, furnished with IKEA-like furniture. The thoughtful details of the space caught my eye- sliding glass, floor to ceiling windows to allow cross ventilation, a liquid desiccant duct system to decrease humidity, and a kitchen table that could be raised or lowered into a bar countertop or freestanding island. Cypress louvers on the exterior provide shade and you almost forget that solar panels are on the roof. I could live here.

Each house is uniquely designed and visibly reflects its native ecosystem and surrounding environment. Team New York’s Solar Roofpod is designed for city mid-rise building rooftops and includes a green roof garden to retain storm water. Team China’s Y Container is made from six recycled shipping containers and its “Y” shape creates a multifunctional, flowing space. The homes are about 900 square feet and cost between $250,000 and $600,000.

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Team New York’s Solar Roofpod (Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy)

If you’re in DC this week (September 23 through October 2, 2011), I highly recommend touring the solar homes or vote online for your favorite! Solar Decathlon homes from the 2009 competition are located all across the country, so check to see if one is located in your neighborhood.

During my visit with Sean and other decathletes, I was amazed to learn that 15,000 students have participated in the Solar Decathlon since the first competition in 2002. That’s 15,000 more architects, building contractors, chemists, electricians, engineers, geologists, metallurgists, physicists, and material scientists now in the U.S. workforce. These are Green Jobs.

By 2015, the green building market is projected to reach $135 billion, according to McGraw Hill Construction, which reports that “green building is the bright spot in an otherwise tough economy.”

As Congress continues to probe Solyndra’s bankruptcy and attack Obama’s programs to promote energy efficiency and renewable power jobs, college kids are discovering solar energy solutions and validating this industry’s importance. We need more of this innovative youth spirit to move our county forward.

Rachel Carson once wrote that “the real wealth of the nation lies in the resources of the Earth — soil, water, forests, minerals, wildlife… Their administration is not properly, and cannot be, a matter of politics.” The sun is Earth’s greatest resource; without it, we could not exist. Realizing the potential of solar energy is something more than a matter of politics.

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Team China’s Y Container (Credit: Stefano Paltera/U.S. Department of Energy)

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