By DAVID POGUE
This weekend, at a few minutes past 9 a.m. EST, “CBS News Sunday Morning” will broadcast my report on this year’s Solar Decathlon. (This show’s stories often get rescheduled at the last moment, but so far it’s looking good for Sunday.)
Anywayyes, I know. The Solar what?
It’s a competition, now held every other year (this was the third Decathlon since 2002). It’s produced by the Department of Energy as a showcase for the latest high-tech solar homesdesigned and built by college students.
The universities’ engineering and architecture students begin working one or two years in advance to design a completely self-powered home. This year, there were 38 entries, mostly from the United States and Europe.
(Photo: Department of Energy)
The top 20 teams got a unique invitation: to transport the houses, by truck or ship, piece by piece, from their schools to the Mall in Washington, D.C., the strip between the Washington Monument and the Capitol. The Energy Department gives each finalist team $100,000 to defray the transportation costs, although that’s a drop in the bucket compared to the total amount some of these teams spent on their homes: up to $1 million, usually from donations and alumni.
There they were, last month: 20 houses, reassembled, arrayed in a little solar village, fully operational and open to the public. (You can see a lot of photos at www.solardecathlon.org.)
The point of the event is to illustrate that “solar” no longer means “hippy hangout,” “ugly box” or “Spartan shack.” The homes are gorgeous on the inside, and, usually, on the outside. (Rules limit the house to 800 square feet, not counting porches, patios, and gardens; that, and the necessity to get them to Washington on trucks, dictated a certain boxiness to some of the floor plans.)
There was nothing Spartan about these homes. In fact, the name Decathlon is a reference to the ten categories that these homes can rack up points in the contest: architecture, engineering, market viability, communications, comfort zone, appliances, hot water, lighting, energy balance (bonus points if you generate more power than you use), and “getting around.”
These houses are completely “off the grid”they’re not connected to the utility companies. Yet the teams have to live like normal Americans. Using only power from the sun, they have to keep the TV on six hours a day, run the computer five hours a day, cook meals, wash dishes, do two loads of laundry a week, take four 15-minute hot showers a week, keep the temperature between 70 and 78 degrees, maintain 40 to 60 percent humidity, and recharge an electric two-seater car (that’s the “getting around” part).
In short, they have to prove that living on solar power does not involve sacrifice.
Far from it. Some of these houses had hot tubs, outdoor hot showers, SubZero refrigerators, mood lighting and full-blown home-entertainment systems.
Most houses incorporated reclaimed and recycled materials, too. We saw furniture made from compressed fly ash from coal-burning power plants; beams and plywood made of bamboo, which grows four times as fast as hardwood; flooring reclaimed from demolished buildings; and so on.
The University of Maryland team installed a wide, bookcase-sized, indoor waterfallnot just to soothe the soul, but to pull humidity out of the air. It was a desiccant solutionlike the “Do not eat” packets that come in your electronics, but in liquid formthat absorbs moisture. Drier air inside means that you don’t need to run the air conditioner as much. The saturated waterfall flows out the bottom to an outdoor evaporator; the re-concentrated solution is pumped back in to the waterfall, and the cycle begins again.
All of the houses used arrays of glass tubes, resembling black fluorescent lights, for hot water. They cook your water as high as 220 degrees, which ought to be hot enough for most people.
From Germany, the University of Darmstadt’s amazing house was a glass cube wrapped on all sides by what looked like beautiful wooden shutters. But in fact, these were louvers covered with solar panelscomputer-controlled to track the sun’s arc.
The Germans’ house was filled with cool energy toucheslike the oven whose floor descends from the bottom to present your food, lowering like an elevator. The rising heat stays in the oven, rather than pouring into the kitchen as it does when you open a traditional oven door.
The sheetrock of this home’s walls was infused with paraffin (candle wax). Why? To absorb heat and liquefy during the day, and then release the heat and re-solidify at night.
On the weekends, the lines to get into this house were an hour long.
Maybe it’s no surprise; Germany is really into solar power. By German law, if you have solar panels, the power company must buy any excess electricity you generate. As a result, families routinely pocket a handy $100 or $150 a monthfrom the local utility. There’s a gold rush for roof space, and solar technology is a red-hot market. It’s brilliant.
In this country, howeverwell, not so much. Richard King, the Decathlon director, told me that utilities don’t pay you for excess electricity. You can have a $0 electric bill, but you can’t make money.
In fact, although individual states (notably California) have some promising solar incentives, the United States has practically no national solar policy at all. There’s only one solar-installation tax-incentive programaccording to www.dsireusa.org, you can deduct up to 30 percent of the cost of solar panels, maximum $2,000and it expires at the end of next year.
No wonder, then, that I encountered a certain amount of cynicism, even among some of the participants and staff, about the Department of Energy’s motives in mounting the Solar Decathlon. (“It’s a PR stunt,” muttered one when the camera wasn’t rolling.)
But you know what? It doesn’t matter. The Solar Decathlon has grown up to become exactly what it’s supposed to be: an amazing, inspiring, head-turning show, where the public can see just how far solar has come. I wish you could have seen it.
Oh, waityou will. On Sunday morning. :)Visit David Pogue on the Web at DavidPogue.com »