Stunning Solar Homes Can Actually Be Affordable

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This year’s Solar Decathlon contest, organized by the U.S. Department of Energy, saw several firsts. This was the first time the American event was not held in Washington, D.C., the first time it coincided with a partial government shutdown, and the first time high winds challenged the competitors. It also officially judged the most affordable solar homes yet.

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This is the sixth time the Solar Decathlon has taken place since 2002. For the competition, collegiate teams selected from around the world spent two years designing and creating solar-powered houses. Then they came to Irvine, Calif., and set up the homes at Orange County Great Park. Since Oct. 3, teams have been showing their innovative solar-powered houses to the public and living in them to demonstrate their strengths across 10 contests that were either measured or judged by jury members.

Right before the event began, politics in Washington hit the fan. Even though the government had basically shut down, the DOE-run Solar Decathlon proceeded as planned because it was supported by 2012 federal funding and more than 30 private-sector sponsors. Federal employee participation was limited to the personnel needed for the show to go on. Then it was a whirlwind, sometimes literally. Last week the event was closed temporarily when the Santa Ana winds whipped through the site.

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Team Austria was announced as the overall winner today, edging out other teams in areas such as engineering, hot water and energy balance. But the real story to me was Norwich University’s Delta T-90 House, which won the Affordability Contest with a house that cost an estimated $168,385 to build (go Vermont!). Resembling a modern log cabin, their house was designed specifically for New Englanders as a way to reduce the high fuel costs that come from heating old homes.

Norwich University crunched the numbers. In 15 years, the upfront cost for the house would pay back the difference in cost of a mobile home, according to the team’s calculations. They achieved this by using 16-inch walls with deep-set windows that minimize heat loss, as well as a mini-split heat pump HVAC system that has a single supply diffuser for compact heating and cooling, avoiding the need for ductwork or obvious mechanical elements.

This was only the second Solar Decathlon where affordability was its own category. In 2011, the teams that tied in the category built homes costing $229,890 and $249,568 respectively. All the homes this year were built for under $600,000. I’ve noticed that since the competition’s early days, solar power for the home has gone from a luxury you could only see in select neighborhoods to something you can pick up at the local hardware store.

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Solar power has also scaled up surprisingly well in recent years. On Wednesday, the Solana solar power plant in Arizona switched on. One of the largest of its kind in the world, it can power 70,000 households day or night with help from enormous salt batteries. Solar power continues to make its way into more and more homes across the country, whether on the roof or through the outlets. And now it won’t take all your money first.

Photos: A rendering of the winning Solar Decathlon 2013 house built by Team Austria (top). and the Norwich University Team’s solar house kitchen (bottom). Credit: U.S. Department of Energy Solar Decathlon.

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