Competition encourages college students to build zero-energy homes
Several universities from the Mountain West are competing this weekend in an international competition focused on building climate-smart homes.
The Solar Decathlon, funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, gives teams two years to design and build zero-energy homes powered by renewables.
There are 10 contests in the competition, where the zero-energy homes are judged on factors including environmental impact and durability. They also undergo several tests with sensors and equipment to test functions like drying beach towels in the homes or charging an electric vehicle.
“It's very practical in some sense. Like, can your house actually perform the things that a home needs to be able to do?” Holly Carr, the director of the decathlon, said.
The competition started in 2002, when collegiate teams would bring their zero-energy home models to the National Mall in Washington D.C. Back then, powering a house entirely by solar power was a new idea.
“Zero-energy homes are not UFOs that are landing on the National Mall anymore,” Carr said. “That was true 20 years ago, but now they are feasible and beautiful and functional and can be found across the country and communities all over.”
Since then, the competition has moved toward local builds that allows teams to build a home in their town and open it for the public to see. The competition also includes some international teams. This year, teams from British Columbia and India are partaking in the competition alongside teams from across the U.S.
There are two main categories in the decathlon: design and build. The design competition lasts one to two semesters and encourages students to complete designs of commercial and residential buildings.
The build competition starts with a design, and if teams advance from the preliminary round, they receive grants to build the home and test its abilities. Then, the teams meet in a central location and “present” their homes.
“The build challenge teams will also have 3D tours that we [the public] have taken inside and outside of all of the homes,” Carr said. “So there will be VR goggles, and jurors and student participants and faculty can all don the goggles and basically walk through each of these homes and see every nook and cranny through these virtual tours.”
This year, students from the University of Wyoming built a 2,400-square-foot, all-electric home of wood reclaimed from a 2020 wildfire. In Utah, Brigham Young University students created a triple-dome home that uses earth berms to regulate temperatures even in extreme weather.
A team from the University of Colorado Boulder has not built their house yet, but they will still compete with their home design.
Carr said these students are helping to build a clean energy future.
“The skills that students are gaining in the Solar Decathlon are important now more than ever as we look to transition buildings to run on clean energy and to be a part of climate solutions,” Carr said.
The Solar Decathlon awards ceremony will be livestreamed Sunday at 8 a.m. Mountain Time on the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon website. The public can view all the entries and tour the homes virtually at the decathlon’s virtual village website.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
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