CU Boulder Wins Solar Decathlon on National Mall

By Roxanne Khamsi

WASHINGTON, DC, October 7, 2002 (ENS) - Student teams from 13 universities and one college came to the National Mall last week to catch a few rays and compete in the first ever Solar Decathlon, a contest to design, build and operate an attractive house powered only by the sun.

Standing in front of the winning home on Saturday, Assistant Secretary of Energy David Garman announced the University of Colorado, Boulder as winner of the 10 day competition.


Colorado Congressman Mark Udall (right) visits the University of Colorado house and speaks with a student on the winning team. (Photos courtesy U.S. Energy Dept.)
While other schools claimed first place in some of the 10 distinct contests that made up the decathlon, a sophisticated energy distribution system gave University of Colorado team members a superior ability to monitor and adjust their power use, leading them to score highest overall and triumph in the end.

"The real decisive factor was that their engineering systems were so good," said George Douglas, a spokesman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, which oversaw the event. "They were able to tweak things as they went along."

An estimated 50,000 people visited the solar village during the open house sessions a week ago and crowds were no smaller this past weekend.

The judges had 32 data points installed in various parts of each home to measure the energy use of systems such as refrigeration and air conditioning. Over the course of the week, the teams faced challenges that simulated the power demands of a normal house. One such test on Wednesday required each group to run hot water in their house at 110 degrees for 10 minutes to imitate a typical hot shower. Other tasks included doing laundry and maintaining stable indoor temperatures.

"We made it fair," said Douglas. "They even had to wash and dry towels - and we gave them the towels."


Second place University of Virginia house during construction September 24
Although the Solar Decathlon outlined rules that prohibited teams from building houses larger than 800 square feet, the range of original gadgetry and imaginative material used within each home suggested that the competition placed no boundaries on innovation.

Visitors inside the University of Virginia's house got a glimpse of the "smart wall." Situated in the interior, directly facing the front entrance, the wall contains 341 light emitting diodes that provide a visual alert to the inhabitants by glowing red when the house gets too warm and loses its energy balance.

A parabolic dish on the roof of the house tracks the sun according to a computer program that uses latitude and longitude information. The dish focuses the sun's beams it captures onto an elliptical mirror that sends the light down a fiber optic cable that ends in "solar luminaires," transparent baton-like fixtures that hang vertically and diffuse the brightness indoors.

University of Virginia (UV) achieved high points for architectural design, but making a home that was both energy efficient and attractive proved challenging.

"It became clear to the students that sustainable design is not the only thing to be thinking about, but it's the only thing that you can't forget," said John Quale, an assistant professor of architecture at UV who served as an advisor to the school's team.

Fierce competition among the schools prompted Auburn University to build their house inside so that information about its design would not be leaked to their opponents.

While many were impressed by the original student inventions, people touring the houses also appreciated the already available solar technology that all the homes shared in common.


A Tuskegee University student works on the team's power conditioning equipment to maximize efficiency.
"I had seen these panels on people's roofs, but I never knew how they worked," said Harriet Greenberg, a visitor from Silver Springs, Maryland.

The line to enter the winning house was over 30 people long Saturday afternoon, with similar waits outside all the other homes in the temporary solar village. Inside the University of Colorado's structure students appeared delighted with their victory.

"It feels like all the work was worthwhile," said graduate student Chris Kennedy. "But the environment is the real winner."

Some teams boasted a membership of over 100 people at some point in the process of planning and building their houses, but most had a core group of fewer than 20 students.

Because many of the houses cost almost 200,000 dollars to build, students invested a great deal of energy into fundraising. The Crowder College team initially sold its home on Ebay for 75,000 dollars to receive money for construction. The sale included a provision that the college could buy the house back, which it now intends to do. Once the Crowder house returns to campus by truck, it will be used by visiting faculty at the school.


An official observer watches as University of Maryland students work on their solar powered home office equipment.
The U.S. Department of Energy sponsored the Solar Decathlon, as did companies and institutions such as Home Depot, BP Solar, and the American Institute of Architects. Schools coordinated individual sponsorships from makers of energy efficient appliances and materials. The University of Colorado made a point incorporating already available technologies into their house.

"Our systems worked and that came as part of the territory of using commercially available stuff," said Michael Brandemuehl, an associate engineering professor and the lead faculty advisor to the winning team. "We wanted to make the statement that these things are commercially available now."

Teams began the Decathlon process two years ago. Of the 10 contests that made up the Decathlon, seven are focused on energy and three are not.


Students from the Auburn team fight Washington traffic in their solar car during the Getting Around part of the Decathlon. (Photo courtesy )
As part of the Getting Around Contest, students are required to drive their electric cars - charged by their photovoltaic panels - to the grocery store, donate food to a food bank, and visit a checkpoint at a nearby park.

The Design and Livability contest concentrates on architectural design and is the only contest worth 200 points. All nine other contests are worth 100 points each. They are: Design Presentation and Simulation, Graphics and Commnication, The Comfort Zone, Refrigeration, Hot Water, Energy Balance, Lighting, Home Business, and Getting Around.

For more Decathlon details, visit: