ICON Solar House, Beyond Solar at the Solar Decathlon

Editorial by Simona Fischer
As the teams convened at the west end of the Solar Decathlon village last Thursday for the opening ceremony, not everyone was excited about the competition. A small group of protesters stood at the edge of the crowd of Decathlon teams, holding a sign that read, "Tech is not enough - U.S. climate action."


I walked over to speak with them. It turned out that they were not protesting participation in (or the existence of) the Solar Decathlon, so much as what they believed to be a weak showing by the US in the G20 summit in September with regard to environmental and climate legislation. In other words, they believed that this Department of Energy-led competition was merely about showcasing technology ("Tech is not enough"), and that the US could stand to take action in legislating real change.


I can't speak for all of the teams, but I believe many participants would agree with both statements. In our economic system, change requiring investment on the part of people and businesses happens when change is mandated, supported and enforced, not just because a group of students set a good example.


In defense of the Solar Decathlon, however, to cast it as a mere exercise in showcasing technology would be shortsighted. According to the statement on their website, the Solar Decathlon's main goals are "to educate the student participants" so that we will become more knowledgeable and responsible architects, engineers, builders, organizers and communicators; to "raise awareness" and "demonstrate to the public the potential of Zero Energy Homes" through [many long, grueling hours of] public tours; and to "foster collaboration among students from different academic disciplines," among others. Participation required dedication, passion, endurance and labor from each of the twenty teams. Awareness-raising and collaboration took place in abundance over the course of the two years leading up to the competition, and perhaps they are the most important aspects of the project in the end, for the students and faculty who worked on this project will spread bits of what they learned throughout their lives' work.


Nevertheless, if the Solar Decathlon is to be taken as proof of the US Department of Energy's commitment to environment and energy sustainability, it is in some ways a poor showing. This is evidenced by the nature of some of the contests, including a net-metering measurement which rewards the highest net producer of energy, regardless of how much energy they use in their own home. Isn't this skewed? Shouldn't the contest reward the team who combines least energy used with the greatest net production?


Also, where is the credit for having the least embodied energy in a home--in other words, using the least amount of energy and resources for materials, construction and finishes? Where are the judging criteria that take into account salvaged, recycled or reused materials, sustainably forested wood, non-toxic paints, foams, insulation and composites, grey water recycling, and reduction of overall waste? Beyond benefitting students through experience, solar manufacturers through exposure, and the US Department of Energy through "green" publicity, it is clear that the focus and contest criteria of the Solar Decathlon could be more holistic in scope.


The goals of the Solar Decathlon are due for an update. What if each team was required to build according to LEED Platinum standards--the guidelines set forth by our very own US Green Building Council? Or better, the Living Building Challenge, which requires careful consideration of all materials used in a building, as well as proving net-zero energy performance prior to certification? What if each house in the competition was truly required to be a sustainable design? Then we would really have something powerful to share, with the American public as well as the international community.