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Solar Decathlon's Rainy Start

3:08 PM, Sep 23, 2011 • By DANIEL HALPER
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The Department of Energy's Solar Decathlon kicked off today in Washington on the National Mall, under inauspiciously dark rainy skies. In a press release announcing the competition, Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu is quoted as saying, "The Solar Decathlon collegiate teams are showing how clean energy products and efficient building design can help families and businesses reduce energy use and save money...The event challenges talented students to become pioneers of clean energy technology and helps ensure that out nation remains competitive in the workforce of tomorrow."

Chu has reason to be hopeful that the competition pays off: The Department of Energy gives a $100,000 grant to each team just to participate in the Solar Decathlon, in addition to all the other costs of hosting and producing the competition. (Some of the other costs are offset by the myriad sponsors--from Lowe's to Pepco.) 

The City College of New York's team proudly showed off their house to me this morning at the competition:

Teisha Villegas, a fifth year architecture student at CCNY, was a bit cagey with the details, but it looked nice inside! "I'm not sure," Villegas said when I asked how many kilowatts the 40 solar panels on the roof were bringing in today. "I haven't had a reading on a bright sunny day."

The house has the potential to bring in 8 kilowatts of energy (although not on a day like this).

When I asked how much the house cost, Villegas was again slow to reveal the details. "Not one of the cheap ones," she said, saying that since it was built in New York City it had to meet the city's strict codes. "I can't say the price tag because we're still negotiating with the affordability people." One element of the competition is to be able to build affordable green energy housing. 

Finally, Villegas conceded the price tag came to about $450,000, "which is just parts" since CCNY students did all the labor. Another student from the same team, Yinery Baez, also a fifth year architecture student, said that $500,000 is a more accurate figure, but that they believe the price could be dropped to about $300,000 if it were ever to be mass produced. 

Depending on who you asked, the square footage of the home is either 650 (Villegas) or 750 (Baez).

Since the Department of Energy only picks up $100,000, I wondered how the college teams were able to pick up the rest of the costs. For the CCNY team, they are fortunate enough to have generous benefactors, including the Spitzer family (of which former governor Eliot Spitzer is the most famous member).

Villegas shows off the CCNY home's Murphy bed to soggy onlookers: 

The Department of Energy's press release ends by saying, "The Solar Decathlon also provides participating students with hands-on experience and unique training that prepares them to enter our nation's clean energy workforce, supporting the Obama Administration's goal of transitioning to a clean energy economy while saving families and business money." But while there might not be many clean energy jobs for these students to get after graduation, this program must surely be a cheaper alternative to investing in solar energy than Solyndra was for the Obama administration--both in terms of capital and political capital. 

The scene this morning at the Solar Decathlon competition on the National Mall: 

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