THANKS TO THE SOLAR DECATHLON HOUSE,
With energy costs rising as fast as global-warming concerns heat up, it’s one thing to talk about the challenge.
It’s quite another to do something about it.
Here, in the heart of the Sunbelt South, many are giving a promising solution called solar energy the “college try”…and then some. On the campus of Georgia Tech, upward of 130 present and past students have put up, from scratch, an experimental facility called the Solar Decathlon house. It’s a “learning laboratory” with “souped-up” technology, as described by Russell Gentry, a Georgia Tech professor who oversaw it’s construction, and it adds up to one of America’s most ambitious and sophisticated projects aimed at harnessing energy from the sun.
These students have turned to their drawing boards and rolled up their sleeves, while the Green Habitats Foundation, a non-profit organization, led by John Lie-Nielsen, that promotes sustainable building has committed resources.
The school has designated Green Habitats to take over stewardship and possession of the house in August so it can serve as a data-rich repository for education and research about solar power and other forms of sustainable energy.
Together, both college and foundation are tapping into technology that promises to help reduce America’s reliance on fossil fuels and foreign oil.
The Solar Decathlon house is a 800-square-foot, one-bedroom, one-bath, shoebox-shaped, steel-framed structure that sits on display, for public viewing, on Tech’s campus in downtown Atlanta. It’s still a work-in-progress designed, built and operated by students in Tech’s Colleges of Architecture, Engineering, Sciences and Management, and not even hooked up to the local utility’s power grid. Twenty-seven photovoltaic panels on the rooftop, plus 12 more on the translucent and south-facing walls, do most if not all of the heavy lifting when it comes to converting sunlight into at least 3,600 watts of this house’s energy needs. The rooftop panels can be tilted to take best advantage of the most extreme angles of sunlight, in winter and summer.
All told, the house packs enough futuristic technology, with huge quantities of it donated by corporate sponsors, for heating and cooling with an energy-efficient heat pump and illumination so it appears to glow at night.
The house is transportable. It was partly disassembled and then reassembled by its student designer-builders who accompanied its journey by flatbed trailer last October to the National Mall at Washington, D.C. There, Georgia Tech earned sixth place in the Solar Decathlon international competition among their peers from 19 other universities.
Tiffany Savage, a Tech senior architecture major from Watkinsville, Ga., took a design studio course underwritten by Green Habitats in which she and her classmates designed a sustainable multifamily building. She said she gained “an absolutely amazing” insight into solar energy by comparing the wide range of concepts entered in the Solar Decathlon by other schools such as MIT, Penn State, Maryland and the winner, Darmstadt of Germany, among others.
“Ours was much more technologically based,” Savage reported, “much more about pushing the envelope – such as how much light can we get in before overheating our space.”
Today, perhaps no one affiliated with the project is more energized by the promise of solar power than Lie-Nielsen, who in 2007 founded and is chairman of Green Habitats Foundation, which is headquartered in the Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta. His organization stands committed “to promote sustainable building, supporting research and educational programs to design and build housing that conserves water and energy.”
What he expects to derive first from Green Habitats’ major sponsorship and stewardship of the Solar house, is more comprehensive research and education of the public about what sustainable energy can do for them.
“If we can achieve knowledge at the design stage,” he explained, “and if the students of our architecture and engineering schools are taught to think and design in terms of sustainable construction and systems, the builders will build the way it’s been designed.”
Educating the public, too, about costs is yet another challenge. Professor Gentry calculates the house, with all its technology and computer-driven accessories, costs about $280,000. He concedes that, for now, solar energy’s costs outstrip its paybacks, but he adds that public demonstrations such as the Solar Decathlon house can help bring costs down, simply by creating more of a market for solar. “The cost of solar is dropping,” Gentry stated. “And we know what’s going to happen to the cost of electricity produced by fossil fuels. So there will be a crossing point, sometime within the next 15 to 20 years, when solar power is economically viable. We’re heading that way now.”
For his part, John Lie-Nielsen estimates green-building now adds “only 3 to 5 percent” to overall costs of conventional construction, but not for too much longer. “Green construction yields big dividends in water and energy savings, so the payback is really very quick,” he said.
“And as energy efficient appliances and insulation techniques are utilized more and more in volume, the cost comes down.”
Toward that end, Lie-Nielsen plans to relocate the Solar Decathlon house to an Atlanta-area educational or other venue where it’s easy for the public to visit. Indeed, wherever the Solar Decathlon house appears next, it stands to reaffirm that America’s energy future, to paraphrase an old song, has got sunshine on a cloudy day.
Green Habitats Foundation, Inc, supports research and educational programs to design and build housing that conserves water and energy and is headquartered in Alpharetta, GA. www.greenhabitats.org. 678-990-2738.
For additional information on the Solar Home, please visit http://solar.gatech.edu/.